Aesthetically, I would define Cul-de-Sac as pure delight. I know there’s no such genre, but whatever else critics have been trying to label it just doesn’t stick.
Rarely have I experienced such absolute rapture over the study of the darkest recesses of human soul, global pessimism, a story of humiliation, victimization, misanthropy, misogyny, neurosis, and death.
On Human Dignity
The motif of victimization is most obviously personalized in George. He doesn’t have a chance from the word go: when he meets Richard, he is wearing that frilly nightgown. Thus, Richard treats him with utter contempt by definition – ‘little fairy’ can’t be perceived as the owner of the castle or someone who actually can call the police, not as someone who can stand up to the macho intruder, or to anyone else. Which, of course, he can’t, being singled out Richard’s victim at this very first step: after all, it’s only the logical development of what he apparently had been going through in his new family life – no wonder he accepts his fate right away (his shrill “Nobody’s panicking!!!” speaks volumes of his state of mind).
There is difference, however, between just a victim and someone whose dignity is methodically taken away. The apotheosis of victimhood, monsieur Trelkovsky the tenant, managed to keep some pathetic, miserable kind of dignity throughout his numerous ordeals; George doesn’t only lose his dignity at every step; worse, he is constantly trying to keep it, or regain it when it, invariably, is lost, making a deplorably ridiculous fuss while fighting this lost case. But, then again, the tenant was lonely alone, and the other people as well as the whole order of the universe were only trying to drive him to suicidal insanity; George is much worse off, he is alone with someone who is supposed to love him, and now also confronted with a man she is so likely to form an alliance against him with; and they are both set on humiliating him, and there’s no such thing as “order”, of the universe or anything else.
You can’t remain dignified when you’re not heard; it’s something everyone experienced, I believe, at least once a life.
“What’s the name of this rock pile?” Richard shouts from the top of the wall.
“Rob Roy, Lindisfarne Island, Northumberland!”
“What? Speak up!” This one is especially clever, because we, the audience, are given George’s point of view, not Richard’s. To us, he can be heard perfectly well, and although we believe Richard doesn’t hear, we don’t feel, on emotional level, that George really has to yell. His “Rob Roy, Lindisfarne Island, Northumberland!!!!!!!” sounds to us less comprehensible than the previous version of same, and leaves some lingering suspicion that comprehensibility wasn’t the main reason for this particular show.
He juggles eggs and breaks them; Teresa laughs, and it’s a bad kind of laugh, mocking and unkind. He only can roll his eyes when Richard slaps him (good-humoredly, as a sign of approval) over the top of the head. The boy bites his hand in the middle of a lecture. When he hears Richard’s drunken singing, he tries to protect Teresa (“don’t move don’t move”), but she is drinking out there too, and throwing stones into the window as a sign of mockery at her inadequate protector.
What other way is there for him to resist what they impose on him? (Yes, there is a “they” – whatever antagonism between these two, they are united against him: there’s nothing sweeter than baiting the defenseless.) “I never drink,” he says and pleads ulcer as his only protection. No, he will have to drink up, “to the last drop”. In the dark, he incidentally tramples on “Albie’s specs”, and must be taught “to respect the dead” – see, now that he already agreed on being the ultimate victim in this microcosm of universal victimization, he can be accused of anything, and he will swallow it: the absurd humiliation has been going on long enough. A misstep is tantamount to disrespecting the dead, and all he can say is, “I didn’t do it on purpose.” Ah, but even this is too much – “Answering back?! Wonders never cease!” - and now he is submitted to a humiliating ear-pulling. How to keep face now? Well, he pretends to laugh; oh Lord, but it is all of us who never know how to behave when faced with brutal force. A worst nightmare of an intellectual, to be humiliated in front of your woman and have to play on someone else’s field, according to the rules you not only don’t know but have always despised and excluded from your life. Now, is that enough, did he hit the bottom, or is there anything else in store for him? Why, of course, the morbidest of all humiliations, with him being pushed inside the grave and forced to dig, only to get the body dumped over him in the end. And then, as the last touch, they start shoveling earth on him, as if to bury him alive. She, at least, fetches him a chair – which will be buried instead.
He wouldn’t have been so ridiculous under other circumstances, but the thing is, there never are other circumstances. When he says, “Grandma Moses was never a Sunday painter” (the guest’s answer, “It is no excuse for treating me like a fool!” is one of the many gems in the brilliant dialog constituent of the movie), he looks actually dignified. But then he is struggling with his painting, trying to fit it back onto the wall, et voilà, he looks ridiculous again; the fabric of the universe won’t let you keep your head high.
The blast of the gun during the party sets him free for a moment, and he can stand up to his guests, again – although kicked in the shin by the little monster and thus losing some form, if not essence, of dignity. But he is no match to them:
“He’s gone completely off his rock, because of that tart”.
“Say that again.” (this was supposed to confuse the opponent. Fat chance.)
And still, still, he manages to do his best. “Get the hell out of my… fortress!” is a deliciously funny line, so incongruous and at the same time oddly endearing him to us for a moment. This is his moment of triumph, predictably and regretfully short. In the wake of this moment of glory, he asks Richard how long he was going to stay here waiting for Katelbach. And is put back to his place at the bottom of the pecking order, of course, his face (in profile) visibly showing the loss of whatever self-assurance and self-respect he had summoned during getting the guests out (“Out! Out!!!”).
George is the precursor of the tenant (even the cross-dressing motif is already present), and both are put so low down that sometimes they appear to have come through to the other side, and acquire some paradoxical magnitude, like Dostoyevsky characters would. But the tenant was given at least one moment (in the car, with the close-up of his haggard eyes and a tear rolling out) to appeal to our compassion directly – right before the grotesque finale. George is never given such an open moment. Everything is entirely up to us, it’s whether or not we find it in ourselves to pity him. Whether or not we possess enough human substance of our own.
These are us, Lord! Only there’s no Lord in this abandoned universe.
Monsters R Us
The first thing we learn about Teresa is that she is absolutely mad. That’s what her lover says, overheard by Richard: “You’re absolutely mad.” All the characters are introduced the way their destiny shines at us: dying; doing something efficient but useless; carrying a cumbersome kite and talking at the same time; being mad. The mad one is the real monster of the freak show.
All the others can be [lesser] monsters at any moment, whether at this given moment they are assigned the part of the torturer or the victim; these roles are interchangeable in this merry-go-round, with only George at the bottom of the food chain; and the pendulum of our sympathy and pity swings wide, surprisingly, in a story that is essentially pitiless.
Even the biggest monster has her moments, when, set off by her spineless husband, she looks courageous and strong – after all, it’s she who can stand up to Richard; and when locked up the first time, she says “swine”, isn’t it a manifestation of human dignity? Well, she gets a snap on the nose. It’s not that you can’t be dignified when you’re faced with brutal force – no, it’s you can’t keep your dignity when you have none. Dignity as a trait can only exist within a system of values, and there’s nothing that has even a nodding acquaintance with values in this deadly mix of whim, neurosis, boredom, amorality and eroticism that constitute her soul.
A critic said, “it's a measure of the film's power that when you're not compelled to look, you're compelled to look away” – I, frankly, prefer not to look at Teresa’s face most of the time; this emptiness inside which any roll of vipers may be breeding is somewhat too disturbing for me. (Thirty-something years later Polanski will direct Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at Théâtre Marigny; there’s a lot of common between the two women). When she pulls the boy’s ear, her face is really too much to take; or when she says to the guests, “He is going to have an exhibition”: her face is on the foreground, and we can see all that game of emotions on it, this utmost pleasure at doing something incredibly nasty to you near one.
As I said, everybody else is a monster here, but there are degrees. The guests, for example, are not exactly people – like all observers in Polanski movies, they are henchmen of the ghastly horror looming behind the thin façade of reality. They can’t really be human because they are not vulnerable: likewise, in The Tenant you wouldn’t expect the concierge or Madame Dioz to ever suffer, and it’s the suffering and potential or actual victimhood that turns creatures into people. The guests have come to contribute to the basic disorder of things, to hurt whomever is within reach as much as they can. “I want to kill the chicken!” the boy happily shouts. When he is not allowed to, he scratches the record instead: every little helps. But it’s people, not those creatures, who are the scariest monsters.
Their last night began with a peaceful picture; one sleeping in the armchair, the other on the mattress right there on the terrace, and Teresa sitting with a magazine, and chickens adding a pastoral overtone, and the music (main theme) playing – and then it is stuck – again – again – a horrible dissonance, signaling that and all this will end very bad very soon. Then she stops the record, and there’s that abrupt shutup, - and a woman in a black dress is playing with a shotgun in the silence. Then all hell breaks loose, and here she is, inventing right on the spot what all rotten women always invent when they want an excuse: he tried to kiss me. Then, the killing.
George shoots first time with his head turned away, hardly aware that he is shooting. It is a reflex movement after which stopping is impossible (later we’ll see the same when McBeth murders Dunkan). And his face reads only, “It works! It works!” Finally, an action that succeeded. Is murder the only thing we can succeed at? Yes, this, and dying. Also going insane. That’s what comes easiest to all the characters.
Then they, the pathetic murderous fools, try to hide behind each other when Richard gets his automatic. Then, the dying, the last convulsive random shooting, and the fire – George’s silhouette at a weird angle against the fire, the glasses at a weird angle on his nose, only Teresa keeps her cool – again! – because the world she lives in is itself so crooked that no normal categories of tragedy are applicable.
The Slippage and Universal Inadequacy
Nothing is fit for human living: the doorways too low, the eggs and the rungs of the ladder rotten. Everything is arranged the way it is impossible or difficult to use, like that fridge door. Nothing can be found (pajama tops, or frying pans). Whatever is still in any working order will be damaged or destroyed (car dented; bars for the hens demolished), and “a very beautiful… er, something” will eventually be smashed by a rock thrown at random.
The glass case of a grandfather’s clock is used as a mirror, vodka poured in cups, and the cigarette stubs thrown right onto the medieval stairs. George’s paintings are horrendous, of the worst kind: the amateurish horrendous of a man who knows what the modern “real thing” should look like.
Nothing works as intended, nothing subsists, nothing keeps its dignity; things usually manage it better than people, but no, not here. The grave is desecrated, by the diggers themselves, then the chickens, then the little boy. The priceless stained-glass window gets smashed by a gun bullet fired by a spoiled brat.
Everything is ridiculous, given the wrong circumstances. Everything is pathetic. And the circumstances are always wrong. Everything is askew, slipping, what could be an intellectual respected by his peers is a neurotic loser; and what could be a loving wife, proud hostess of a castle, is a dangerous psychopath; and the big gorilla is the most vulnerable of the three – after all, it’s him who dies in the end; and Katelbach (with a t for tea, and b for bast – er, boy) never comes. The ever-sarcastic look on the dying Irishman’s face is the only thing they all deserve.
Richard seems the only efficient one there (even the owl stops hooting when he commands it to shut up!), but the universal law decrees the elimination of the fittest, because the unfittest can only be pushed that far. Even when Richard is brilliant, which he often is, it’s brilliance with one foot in quicksand, slowly but relentlessly sliding down.
He has problems lighting a match. He shoots his pistol at a plane that happened to be “regular plane”, and after the boat brings a man other than Katelbach, he can’t even open the tin can. But, of course, he had a wounded arm.
We’re all amateurs here, and the pros just up and die (both of them), being as amateurish at life as we are. We’re all losers, and even she, the toughest of them all, loses in the end, captured in the hell of her own soul; alas, this planet isn’t really fit for human beings, and nobody can offer us a different globe.
The principle of the absurd is the direct opposition to magic. The latter consists in everything being connected with everything in the hierarchy of planes; when we do something down below, something happens up above, and vice versa. The universe as it appears in Cul-de-Sac is essentially disjointed, discoordinated, godless. No, there’s no “above”, there’s no upper being, and Katelbach never comes. His last message says, “You’re on your own. Count me out.”
We’re alone like Albie in the car, slowly inundated by the sea. At least his Katelbach – Richard – comes, but guess what? Albie dies anyway.
And so does Richard, for that matter.
In the whole world’s cinema there’s few lines as absurdly hilarious as Cecil’s “Good evening” and “Aren’t you coming with us?”, in a civilized British voice, in the middle of chaos and insanity. One would think the man should realize the incongruousness of his words, but then again, why should he? Everything is of equal value[lessness] where hierarchy is nonexistent, and the corpse lying there is no better or worse than, say, an umbrella. All pieces of the puzzle we call the universe are always scattered, and when shaken they form bizarre pictures none of which makes actual sense.
The tragedy of a miserable human being in The Tenant consisted of parts that formed a pattern, and another pattern, all falling together to make some abominable sense; evil principles controlled the evil world and the unspeakable down below was in agreement by highest principles from up above; everything fit into a bigger picture, however sinister. But here, there’s no bigger picture. The world the tenant lived in reflected the hues of hell, but here, there’s not even hell. We are on our own.