Roman Polanski once cited Cul-De-Sac (Criterion), a sly little character piece set in an isolated medieval castle on the barren British coast, as his personal favorite of his films, and the closest he came to creating “pure cinema.” It’s also been the hardest of Polanski’s films to see, at least in acceptable (and legitimate) editions. Criterion’s release is the first official home video release in the U.S. and it is a superb disc and a welcome debut of a brilliant black comedy and a wicked little psychodrama.
It’s only Polanski’s second English language film, though he wrote the original script with Gerard Brach before making “Repulsion” and then rewrote it to fit the castle location. While it’s not as demented as Repulsion or as engaging and enraging as Chinatown, this is as assured and as perfectly crafted as anything in Polanski’s career, a miniature where every facet offers multiple reflections. The dialogue is as assured at the filmmaking, and is both right and proper and weirdly warped around the situations, thanks to Donald Pleasance (as the owner of the castle) delivering his lines with twitchy cadences and nervous pauses Françoise Dorléac (as his young French wife) and Lionel Stander (as an American thug crashing their private party while hiding out from a robbery gone wrong) bringing in their idiosyncratic approach to the English language.
Essentially a three-hander (with guests—not always wanted—periodically dropping by), it’s described in the liner notes as a “mental ménage-a-trois,” which I suppose is as good a description of the shifting dynamics of power and submission as any. There’s no real sexual tension (let alone sex) within this group but plenty of playing games and roles, from Pleasance donning a nightgown and eye-shadow in pre-invasion bedroom play with his wife to Stander posing as their surly servant when guests arrive.