On an island, anything can happen. Isolated geographically, they form spaces separate from the rest of society where new rules apply and existing norms can be challenged and disrupted. It’s been this way through centuries of culture: Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, Lost, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jurassic Park, Battle Royale – all fertile grounds for the growth of new ideas and the breaking of taboos.
Roman Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac (1966; co-written with Gerard Brach) offers a twisted, noir take on this common trope, following the fortunes of two criminals (played by Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) who find themselves stranded at the secluded Lindisfarne castle off the North-East coast of England.
Stander and MacGowran are criminals already, so the island offers less of an escape from societal norms, and more of a virgin ground to corrupt with their vice. Their victims are a married couple played by Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac, who become trapped at the castle when Stander turns up and the tide comes in.
The ensuing cat-and-mouse dynamic between Stander, Pleasance and Dorléac would be fascinating on its own, but Polanski complicates it with a taste for absurd comedy. Stander dominates proceedings, but even he is at the mercy of nature and a brilliant running gag that sees the car in which MacGowran is waiting become slowly submerged by the tide. Stander finds aggressive seagulls and scratched, looping vinyls in the castle, offering an unsettling and sinister environment.
Gil Taylor’s incredible cinematography is the source of many more disruptive visuals, offering very few safe and stable handholds on which the cast can cling. His black and white photography is razor sharp and nightmarish in its extreme contrast, turning expressionist and noir grading loose on the more naturalistic beachside environment.
In the opening scenes as Stander wanders the dunes with his broken arm, Taylor and Polanski frame him dwarfed by negative space – at first the bleached white of clouds and sky, and then the black void of night within the barn he uses as refuge. It’s hard to imagine someone more isolated and alone. But Polanski delights in giving us whiplash by contrasting these vast landscapes with extreme close-ups and Dutch angles, never letting Stander or his audience find their footing.
Upon reaching the castle, Stander is set in direct opposition to Pleasance. In the little we’ve seen of him before this point, Pleasance is depicted as an effeminate and therefore ‘weak’ man: he dresses up in a woman’s nightgown and puts on make-up in the bedroom with Dorléac, who in an early scene cuckolds him with a young local amongst the dunes. In contrast, Stander is about as traditionally masculine and bullish as they come.
Everything about the pair of them is built up in oppositions: effeminate vs macho, refined British elocution vs distorted American snarl, timid teetotaller vs indiscriminate chugger, posh vs working class, and slender and smart vs fat and grizzled. It’s a contest that Stander wins nine times out of ten, establishing his traditional masculinity as the dominant force, and imposing his criminal lifestyle upon the couple.
MacGowran dies from his injuries along the way, leaving Pleasance and Dorléac at Stander’s mercy, until the unexpected arrival of a car, speeding across the wet sand to the castle. Stander thinks it’s his accomplices, but it turns out to be the couple’s friends, paying them an unexpected visit. Here, the dynamic flips again, with Stander now forced to conform to their refined, middle-class behaviour. Identity becomes fluid and performativity is key, as Stander plays the groundskeeper to deflect suspicion, softening his rough edges to fit their world.
In his familiar, natural habitat, Pleasance’s version of masculinity suddenly looks a lot more successful compared to Stander’s, with his conversational intellectualism allowing him to entertain his guests. In the background, Dorléac doesn’t really conform to either identity, instead playing the trickster and teasing conflict out of both men. She slips on glasses and a pipe in the background of a shot to mock Pleasance’s intellectualism, and later, she sets fire to some paper she stuffs between Stander’s toes, simply to provoke a reaction.
In this middle section of the film, an absurd black comedy takes hold, with identity becoming fluid and play becoming the thing. Individual goals of escape from the island or rescue from Stander are set aside as the trio form an off-kilter domestic unit, more focused on one-upping each other and becoming the leader of the pack. As always this is established beautifully with Taylor’s cinematography, for example a tableau he shoots of the three asleep on the terrace or deckchairs with chickens pecking around in the background.
This uncanny, unorthodox form of domesticity is disrupted by one of Dorléac’s many mischievous provocations as she lights a fire under Stander’s feet as he sleeps. He bursts into a rage, whipping her bare legs with his belt and hitting her in anger. Pleasance is called upon to defend her, but his masculinity has been under threat from the second Stander arrived. Every time her honour was called into question he wilted under Stander’s imposing figure; every time she was insulted, he stood by and let Stander walk all over him.
Dorléac reframes her incitement as victimhood, claiming that Stander tried to kiss her, and positioning this as yet another challenge of masculinity which Pleasance will most likely fail. Instead, he shoots Stander several times with his own gun. Challenge passed, but at what cost?
Pleasance ultimately loses his mind after the murder, abandoning reason and becoming hysterical. Perhaps it’s a build-up of Stander’s bullying, or maybe just the stress of killing someone. Either way, it’s indicative of what happens when identity is stretched past its natural fit. In trying to match up to the macho Stander, Pleasance pushes himself way beyond his comfort zone and is forced to breaking point. He snaps. In the film’s final image he squats, sobbing on an outcrop of rock, alone and distraught.
A cul-de-sac is a street that is closed at one end; a place that’s easy to enter but not so simple to leave. It’s any location where you find yourself going in circles, with no obvious escape route except returning where you started. It’s uncanny because it looks like any other road until you walk it. All progress is thwarted. It’s enough to drive you insane.