Telling the story of an oddball couple held hostage in their seaside home by an American gangster, Polanski’s odd sense of humor is on full display in Cul-De-Sac. Working with his triumvirate of characters—the gruff Dickie, the meek Georgie and the flighty Teresa—the director tinkers with their psychology in ways that confuse the audience. The movie’s best scenes tend to involve all three of them in a single location, the dynamics of their persona shifting as they struggle for superiority over one another.
At no point does any one character have the upper hand, either in terms of the narrative (no matter how intimidating Dickie becomes, he’s still forced to wait for Katelbach) or their characterization—though not for a lack of trying. Each player in this pitch-black comedy of manners possesses unique traits that, if fleetingly, put them in a place of superiority: Dickie and his strength; Teresa and her sexuality; and Georgie and his intellect.
Beyond these quirks, not much is known about them. Though their personalities may be broadly defined, Polanski has proven up to this point to be less concerned with characters as people unique unto themselves and more concerned with characters who, conceivably, could be anyone.
As a result, Cul-De-Sac is filled with a number of propositions but, ultimately, very few solutions. Without making mention of the film’s virtually non-existent expository elements, examining the other contextual components mostly results in dead-ends: the film finishes abruptly and without resolution; the ubiquitous Katelbach never arrives; and a number of surreal images (notably the encroaching tide that inexplicably engulfs the castle’s surroundings in seawater) are presented as commonplace.
This forces the viewer to delve into the film’s subtext, where information is similarly scarce. The free-roaming chickens that populate the grounds could be read as extensions of the characters—chickens are flightless, after all, and appear to be just as incapable of leaving the castle as their human counterparts. But then Polanski, in cynically Eisensteinian fashion, inserts a painting of a chicken amongst Dickie’s numerous, crudely drawn portraits of Teresa, captured in a long tracking shot. Given the implied lack of sex in their relationship, and considering chickens (or more appropriately, hens) tend to symbolize fertility, trying to connect the dots quickly becomes a futile effort.
Polanski, a director with a penchant for red herrings, favors incongruity in his narratives, images, and characterization. However, this seeming lack of cohesion is the product of a distinct aesthetic, that of the Theatre of the Absurd. Eugene Ionesco’s assertion that, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question,” is the central theme of Polanski’s early films. Everything present in Cul-De-Sac’s narrative—from the shifting and ill-defined characterization to the strangely plotted story—not only questions traditional film structure, but it also subverts audience expectations in a way unique to Polanski’s films.
Because audiences see themselves in movies (in the characters and their actions), when the narrative circumstances are presented as curiously as they in Cul-De-Sac, they’re forced to grapple with a different set of questions. Very quickly, the question moves away from “what” (as in, “What are the characters doing”) and arrives at “why.” Of course, Polanski doesn’t present an answer in the text. But the film’s final image, of Donald Pleasance sequestered on a rock surrounded by the ominous sea, says enough.