CUL-DE-SAC. Polanski’s Wonderfully Weird Black Comedy

In the film Cul-de-sac, the grotesque vision of the world is most fully expressed, with the grotesque serving as the organizing principle of the entire work.


12 June 2024

CUL-DE-SAC. Polanski's Wonderfully Weird Black Comedy

Polanski’s Tess and Macbeth contain grotesque episodes that serve as stylistic embellishments. In the films Repulsion, The Tenant, and Rosemary’s Baby, the grotesque is concealed under the subjective vision of the protagonists. Reality, as we commonly perceive it, exists, or at least can exist, alongside it. In Cul-de-sac, the director achieves the impression of an objective grotesque world.

If I were to seek the essence of cinema in the way, for example, Samuel Beckett sought the essence of theater, I would make only films like Cul-de-sac. – Roman Polanski

It has often been emphasised that there are creative affinities between Polanski and the creators of the theater of the absurd, such as Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and Albee, as well as with writers who make grotesque the dominant feature of their works: Kafka, Gombrowicz, Schulz. Polanski has always highlighted his admiration for Kafka’s work, which may have nourished his own creativity. According to Polanski, Franz Kafka:

Describes improbable things in such a realistic way that we fall for it and every now and then go back a few pages to reread some passages to check what really happened. We think: is this possible? No, it’s impossible. And all this because Kafka sticks very close to reality, so much so that we cannot escape it. And because he simultaneously forces us to detach from reality, we start to get lost.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence Lionel Stander

This peculiar paradox, reflecting the coexistence of realism and the inherently fantastic grotesque, is also evident in Polanski’s work. The realism of Cul-de-sac is not based on complete mimesis; it is created by juxtaposing, transforming, and mixing fragments of reality. The director does not use any technical means to distort the image. The viewer of The Fearless Vampire Killers is distanced from the grotesque world by the convention of the film. The grotesque arises from the very fact that the film is a parody of a vampire horror movie, which involves mixing elements of horror and comedy. In the case of Cul-de-sac, the viewer is further disoriented by the inability to define the genre convention. The director creates an eclectic form that defies clear definition. Tom Milne calls Cul-de-sac a ghoulish black comedy. Cul-de-sac can also be described as a comedy of menace. This term was coined for Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party and represents a transformation of the term comedy of manners, which refers to the classical English drawing-room comedy. Menace signifies threat, lurking danger, a sense of unease.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence

Not only genre conventions are broken down. Cul-de-sac portrays a world engulfed in entropy, where traditional values disintegrate, people are reduced to the level of animals, and human existence is unnecessary and purposeless. From the perspective of common sense, everything that contradicts accepted norms of behavior and orderly thinking is absurd. This is precisely how the actions of the characters trapped in the inescapable maze of Cul-de-sac appear to us. The appearance of gangsters on the ancient English island of Northumberland Holy Island, with its medieval castle, is absurd and nonsensical. One of the gangsters, Richard the American, could be a character from a traditional gangster film, while the other, Albie, dressed in a Scottish kilt, deviates from viewers’ expectations of a dangerous criminal. Severely wounded from some failed, unspecified expedition, he is condemned to immobility and inactivity, abandoned by his friend in a car on a causeway flooded by the tide. The criminal plot suggested by a few initial shots is reduced to a skeletal form. What remains is the gangsters’ constant waiting for help from their boss Katelbach.


Left alone, they flounder in an absurd trap. Seeking a way out, Richard finds himself in a huge Gothic castle inhabited by peculiar residents. We first meet forty-year-old George in a comic situation, struggling unsuccessfully with a disobedient kite, while his young wife Teresa cheats on him under the pretext of a shrimping trip with an attractive neighbor’s son. George’s clumsiness creates a comedic effect in the scene where he shows off his egg-juggling skills, dropping one egg and crushing another. During bizarre evening amusements, Teresa dresses George in a frilly nightgown, does his makeup, and ties a silk scarf around his bald head. This grotesque reversal of roles and the donning of a mask faithfully express George’s personality. In such a moment, the sly director situates the first encounter of the effeminate man with a formidable opponent. He is in a situation of inevitable defeat and from that point onward will not regain his honor.

Cul-de-sac Françoise Dorléac Iain Quarrier

This very humiliation will be the source of his later troubles, which he will provoke with heroic attempts to free himself from the intruder. He knows that if it comes to a direct confrontation, he and his weak wife stand no chance. He allows himself to be bullied and manipulated until the moment of his absurd rebellion. Unnecessary, because the gangster was planning to leave anyway. George accidentally kills Richard. He watches helplessly as his wife runs off with the first man who appears nearby. He stands motionless for a long time, then in a fit of rage, destroys everything around him. In a state of madness, he runs out of the castle and sits in the middle of the causeway on a rock that will be swallowed by the incoming tide. He shouts loudly, but only the roar of a passing plane answers him.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence Lionel Stander Françoise Dorléac

The plot of Cul-de-sac, sketched here with only a few strokes, outlines a structure that reflects the struggle of two forces: the romantic cultural myth and the contemporary civilization that destroys it. The romantic setting of Northumberland Castle, which serves as the backdrop for the noble adventures of Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, contrasts with the banality of contemporary events taking place there. It was in this castle that Scott created his romantic adventure novel. Only souvenirs of the writer remain there, a pipe, a pen, or fragments of a manuscript, which George reverently preserves. For visitors to this remote corner, they are merely subjects of jokes; for the gangster, the castle is an ideal place for, as he calls it, wild orgies. A significant conversation between Richard and George takes place:

R: You said it was all great (…)

G: The castle. Impossible to heat in winter… impractical… so… drafts… strange.

Richard with curiosity: Strange? Do you like the taste of strangeness?

G: No, no, no… it’s something… indescribable. – He brings his face close to Richard – Something unpleasant.

Richard looks astonished: And you spent all your money on this?


George, who dreamt of fulfilling his youthful fantasies of ideal love and adventure from a romantic novel, suffered a crushing defeat. Many analogies can be found between the main characters of Rob Roy and Cul-de-sac. Francis Osbaldistone abandoned his career as a merchant for poetry, and George sold his factory to live for his beloved woman and peacefully pursue painting. There is an ironic discord in Teresa’s behavior, as she is nothing like a romantic heroine. The irony of the film arises from the confrontation between the ideal and its degradation.

The depreciation of the romantic ideal is due to the anti-values present in contemporary civilization: fleeting relationships replacing love, the desire to humiliate and destroy replacing noble combat (the clash between the gangsters and the castle inhabitants), and friendship turning into a convention hiding nosiness and envy. Cul-de-sac shows the slow disintegration of social norms. During the Fairweathers’ visit to the castle, all pretenses of friendly interest are destroyed, and the truth about hatred comes to light. George, in a burst of suppressed aggression, drives the uninvited guests from his fortress, saying strong words beforehand:

George: … all you care about is your gossip… chatter… prattle… babble… gossiping about everyone, that’s your only goal in life.

Cul-de-sac Françoise Dorléac

For a world where the ideal undergoes ironic degradation, the most appropriate representation is in terms of grotesque, whose main feature is degradation. True tragedy is possible where equivalent values clash, but when they are replaced by semblances, only the grotesque is possible. From the grotesque comes the natural combination of sublime elements characteristic of tragedy (and devalued in Cul-de-sac) and comic – trivial ones. This synthesis of aesthetic opposites is found in Polanski’s film. The dissonance is evident in the appearance of George playing with a childish kite against the backdrop of a gothic castle, far removed from the image of a romantic hero. Gradually added information about him, such as his service in the cavalry, contrasted with his inability to stand up to the gangster even for a moment, deepens the comic effect. The viewer’s smile is also evoked by the humorous discord between George’s artistic ideals and his friends’ comparison of him to a Sunday painter – Grandma Moses.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence Lionel Stander Françoise Dorléac

In the grotesque convention, even an event as far from evoking comic impressions as the death of one of the gangsters has little to do with seriousness and dignity. The scene where Albie, saved from drowning in the tidal wave by Richard and carried to the castle, humorously recognizes his wife Doris in George, dressed in women’s clothing, is marked with humor. George’s makeup-adorned face, seen from the dying gangster’s perspective (a low-angle shot), takes on a grotesque character. Albie’s grave will be placed among flower beds, continually profaned by the ubiquitous chickens in the castle and the nosy boy Horace.

The character of the fearsome gangster undergoes intended degradation in the film. Dominant over his surroundings, ruthless and brutal Richard is forced to hide behind the mask of an obedient servant upon the arrival of unexpected guests at the castle. A grotesque reversal of roles occurs. This twist brings more farcical elements into the film. Richard takes over from George the role of the main comic character. The source of humor is Richard’s awkward behavior as a servant, his skirmishes with the unruly child, or his confession that he could never kill a chicken.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence

The cuckolded husband, the resolute young wife, or the clever servant are vivid farcical types. In Cul-de-sac, people are forced to wear such masks, which determine their behavior. The simplification of character psychology to a one-dimensional plane does not result only from the uniform genre convention adopted from the start, as there is none. The film is not just a farce. Therefore, this concept of characters carries additional meanings. Human existence appears as a sequence of roles determined by psychological dispositions, from which it is difficult to break free. A person is determined by masks imposed by others and never achieves potential full development. Hence, the characters in Cul-de-sac are grotesque figures, envisioned in the shape of humans but lacking real humanity. Polanski goes even further in depicting the devaluation of human essence. He shows animal and human characters on equal footing on screen. In nearly every shot, there are enormous quantities of chickens, whose presence in the courtyard of the medieval castle is unjustified and contrary to common sense. Their senseless, purposeless existence, based only on the instinct of self-preservation and reproduction, exemplifies absurd existence. This equalization of the human and animal world reveals the cruel truth about the absurd dimension of human existence.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence Lionel Stander Françoise Dorléac

The strain of demonic fear in the grotesque is expressed here not as a threat from some monster but as the collapse of the world. The source of the comic aspect is a certain farcicality inherent in such scenes of absurdity and impending chaos. The world depicted in Cul-de-sac appears as an absurd barrel of laughs, where ordinary human life increasingly sinks into apocalypse. Degraded to the level of primal animal instincts, the human unit moves in a world that also undergoes total destruction, not only in the realm of values but also in the literal layer of appearances. The visual motif of breaking permeates the film and takes the form of obsessive repetitions. Close-up shots of broken glasses, shattered stained glass, smashed windows, the destroyed chicken coop and George’s car, a statue felled by a gunshot, paintings smashed by George in a fit of rage – these are just some examples of this motif’s realization. The vision of a world driven to total chaos is crowned with a scene showing all-encompassing fire, a destructive and purifying element.

Cul-de-sac Donald Pleasence Lionel Stander Françoise Dorléac

Starting the film in an atmosphere of cheerful spontaneity and suggesting a mystery structure, the director plays a deceptive game with the viewer. He does not provide the crossword puzzle enthusiast with intellectual satisfaction. The basic question for a crime film, who did it? is irrelevant here. The mystery is discredited by the fact that the crime is committed only at the film’s end. We expect the gangster or someone coming to his aid to commit the murder. Instead, the criminal is accidentally killed by the most cowardly person. An ironic prelude to the crime is the boy’s play with a rifle and his shattering of the stained glass window. The constant suggestion of the gang leader Katelbach’s arrival forms the basis for creating suspense. Meanwhile, it is proverbial waiting for Godot.

Cul-de-sac behind the scenes

In a classic crime film, characters, emotions, and the apparent unpredictability and illogic of reality serve as a pretext to bring it into intellectual order. The mystery can be solved, and the provocation of reason has its answer. Thus, the struggle against the darkness and chaos of the world ends in the triumph of intellect. By creating an unpredictable and absurd sequence of events, Polanski leads the viewer towards the disavowal of reason. By introducing ubiquitous chance and deus ex machina solutions into the plot, the director destroys the rules of the crime film. He plays a game with the principles of reason somewhat akin to reductio ad absurdum. The classic crime film deciphers the code of reality to reveal a clear and simple structure, or at least one comprehensible by the mind. In Cul-de-sac, Polanski depicts the world as an unsolvable mystery, a universe devoid of overarching meaning. He confronts the audience with a grim reality, stripping the viewer of the illusion of idealism without offering any catharsis in return.

Words: Malgorzata Kulisiewicz



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