Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Heading into a Cul-de-Sac

Roman Polanski and the American film industry have had an unusual relationship. Polanski has been a Hollywood hero (for directing such major hits as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown), and a Hollywood victim (for losing wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child to the Manson murder ring). In 1977 he evolved into a Hollywood fugitive, the result of a lurid sexual escapade with a thirteen-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s Bel-Air home. Though he continues to win acclaim, even in Hollywood, for such deeply moving films as The Pianist (2002), he is still today considered a fugitive from the U.S. justice system. It’s not my place here to either condemn or excuse Polanski’s behavior. Suffice it to say that he’s an extremely talented director, and one whose childhood traumas probably influenced his distinctive taste for the perverse. After all, as a six-year-old Jewish child in Krakow, he witnessed his parents being hustled off to Nazi death camps, then lived for years in foster homes, pretending to be part of the Roman Catholic majority.

 Before Polanski arrived in Hollywood, he shot much-acclaimed films both in Poland (Knife in the Water) and the United Kingdom. The psychological horror of Rosemary’s Baby was preceded by Repulsion, a British film starring Catherine Deneuve as a beautiful but sexually stunted young woman obsessed with a fear of men’s desire for her. Repulsion was Polanski’s first film in English. A year later, he made another film he had co-scripted. Called Cul-de-Sac, it was something he once declared was one of his proudest achievements.

 Cul-de-Sac is both very simple and very odd. Set in and around a centuries-old castle-like structure on a Northumberland island, it is in some ways a tone-poem that focuses on ancient stones and the lapping of the sea.  In this stark setting, we come to know three people. One is a middle-aged man, apparently retired from a successful business career, who has retreated to this castle to paint, raise chickens, and enjoy the good life. He’s played by Donald Pleasence, the bald-headed British actor often cast in sinister roles. (See, for instance, his portrayal of a villain in a James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice; he also played the psychiatrist in Halloween) Here he’s not sinister so much as weak, a man physically and emotionally incapable of defending hearth and home. That home includes his second wife, the young and beautiful Fran├žoise Dorl ac (Deneuve’s sister in real life), who seems to like stripping off her clothing in the presence of other men. This oddly-coupled pair hardly expects the arrival of a two-bit gangster hiding out after a botched robbery. He’s played by Lionel Stander, a refugee from Hollywood in the blacklist era, after years of playing sidekicks in films like  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and A Star is Born. Stander was a big man, broad of shoulder and deep of chest, whose trademark was a distinctively gravelly speaking voice. In his presence the diminutive Pleasence shrinks to nothing, and the interplay of the trio (punctuated when a few more unexpected guests turn up) is sometimes funny but always ominous.

 Cul-de-Sac, which won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, will not be to everyone’s taste. Though one trailer I saw promised that it would be “fun” for moviegoers, I doubt that most Americans looking for a good time at the cineplex would find this their cup of tea. It reflects the era’s nihilistic sense of alienation, as seen in the work of playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. But if you like the macabre, this one’s for you.


 

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