Roman Polanski’s oeuvre has spanned countless genres, encompassing the gangster film, noir, comedy, historical drama, and more. Though the focus on Polanski’s career remains on his more contemporary work (and personal life), the 1960s was a fascinating period for the director, transitioning from Polish to English and making some of the decade’s most creative features. One of these, Cul-de-sac, is the director at his most unbridled: crafting a maniacal absurdist comedy that brushes shoulders with the gangster, psychological horror and noir genres he helped cultivate in his later films.
After a bank-heist gone wrong, the pair of robbers find themselves on the remote tidal island Lindisfarne in Northeast England. While one is bleeding out in their car, the other finds a couple living in isolation, and he decides to take them hostage while he waits for more information from his boss. It almost feels that Cul-de-sac is playing a game with itself to see just how insane it can get, with each passing moment feeling like an opportunity to get more an more bizarre.
With every creative beat the film pulses with, there is an undeniable rawness that which in turn creates a deeply unsettling, and often deeply unfocused film. It’s great to see so much unique energy flowing through Cul-de-sac, but a severely lacking screenplay makes most of the first hour a slog, and beautiful cinematography from Gilbert Taylor makes it feel like a step back from his previous film, Repulsion. Things certainly pick up in the second hour, and themes of alienation, and sexual frustration that have been prevalent through Polanski’s career are present, but the film never settles down, which results in it being more ludicrous than enjoyable.
The Criterion release features an impressive video and audio presentation, but is rather disappointing in its special features. Alongside a couple of trailers for the film, there is a short documentary about the making of the film, and an interview with Polanski from 1967. Both are interesting, but the lack of commentary and other content is noticeable in a film as strange as Cul-de-sac.
For fans of Polanski, Cul-de-sac certainly deserves to be seen. It’s a hugely original, unfiltered film that is not afraid to take chances, even if most of them don’t necessarily pan out. There is a strong a/v presentation here, and despite the lack of special features, fans of the director and the film itself should check this one out.