English Title: Cul-de-Sac

Country of Origin: UK

Studio: Compton Films, Tekli British Productions

Director: Roman Polański

Producer(s): Sam Waynberg, Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger, Gene Gutowski

Screenplay: Roman Polański, Gérard Brach

Cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor

Art Director: George Lack

Editor: Alistair McIntyre

Runtime: 113 minutes

Genre: Black Comedy/Art Cinema

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Françoise Dorléac, Donald Pleasence, Lionel Stander, Jack MacGowran

Year: 1966

Volume: East European


Lindisfarne, Holy Island: two gangsters named Dickie and Albie are on the run after a botched job. Dickie leaves the wounded Albie in the car and goes to look for help, stumbling upon a castle. Inside he finds George, who is dressed as a woman, and his young wife, Teresa. He terrorizes both man and wife, and orders them to help him bring Albie from the car. George is strangely ineffectual in defending his home and soon it turns out that Teresa is unfaithful to him. Dickie phones the mysterious Katelbach, who says that they are on their own, which is bad news for Albie. Following the arrival of some English friends of George and Teresa, and Dickie’s pretending to be their butler, events soon take a turn for the worse.

The script of Cul-de-Sac was written in 1963 and has remained Roman Polański’s favourite of his films. However, it is also a work that recounts the difficulties and anxieties of his first steps in the West. At that time Polanski was quickly inscribing himself in the paradigm of a maverick Eastern European auteur when his New Wave exercise Nóz w wodzie/Knife in the Water (1962) got a FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film (in 1964), and also featured on the cover of Time magazine under the title, ‘Cinema as an International Art’. It was not, however, until the success of his first foreign film Repulsion (1965), which won the Silver Bear at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival, that Polański’s status as international auteur was confirmed, and the long-cherished Cul-de-Sac was green lit. Both films were made by the London-based Compton Group at a time when the city welcomed art film as a counterpart to Hollywood, and became something of a Mecca for arthouse directors such as Michaelangelo Antonioni with Blow-Up (1966), François Truffaut with Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and Jean-Luc Godard with Sympathy for the Devil (1968).


While Cul-de-Sac failed to replicate Repulsion’s commercial success – its surrealist collage of grotesque and uncanny images tended to alienate audiences – the Golden Bear award it earned acknowledged its artistic greatness. Some critics felt that the film lacked coherence. But as David Bordwell (2002) argues, the loosening of the cause-effect linkage is one of the main characteristics of art film; and in Cul-de-Sac surrealism is instrumental to the understanding of the psychic signifiers of dislocation and displacement that, like most surrealist art works, follow the logic of the unconscious and are motivated by emotional realism and authorial expressivity. In fact, surrealism itself is an art of exile and trauma, which links Cul-de-Sac not only to the greatest of the movement’s cinematic exiles, Luis Buñuel, but also to a number of British 1960s films made by exiles which contain elements of surreal aesthetics: Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), or Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969). Some Central European directors, who at one point or another were (self)-exiled, also display a surrealist sensibility: Walerian Borowczyk, Andrzej Żuławski and Jerzy Skolimowski.


In Cul-de-Sac, George is an exile of sorts who has left his bourgeois life with his previous wife and relocated to Lindisfarne Island. The denationalized space of the beach in Cul-de-Sac is significant in evoking a transnational affinity to other art film directors of that time, who privilege this location for the exploration of la condition humaine: Bergman’s Det sjunde inseglet/The Seventh Seal (1957), Såsom i en spegel/Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Persona (1966); Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups/The 400 Blows (1959) or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). The space of this non-place also becomes a site for the meeting of characters of different nationalities. Teresa is played by a French actress, François Dorléac (the sister of Catherine Denueve) who sadly died – aged just 22 – a year after this film; while one of the gangsters-on-the-run, Dickie, is played by Lionel Stander, an exile from HUAC activities in America. In the truly Freudian sense, the film is an exploration of the director’s fascination with Englishness/foreignness, conveyed in psycho-sexual terms with George’s obsessive love for his wife. As in Buñuel’s Cet Obscur Objet du Désir/That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), the fact that Teresa does not reciprocate George’s feelings not only makes her more desirable but, coupled with the depiction of George’s emasculation through transvestism, also becomes a possible expression of Polański’s own position of an immigrant who fears whether he, as an artist, is going to be accepted and recognized in the West. As such Cul-de-Sac is an art film because it relies on psychological causation and foregrounds one of the greatest auteurs of his generation.



Bordwell, David (2002), ‘Art Cinema as Mode of Practice’, in Catherine Fowler (ed.), The European Cinema Reader, London: Routledge.

Polański, Roman (1989), Roman, Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Polonia.

Author of this review: Joanna Rydzewska