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Krzysztof Komeda, film composer and jazz musician: Virtual Museum of Krzysztof Komeda

On Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac

By Richard Jonathan

In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, Cul de sac  is number 6.

Poor George. How did he end up like that? Sitting on a rock, hugging his knees and crying, while the flooded strand and leaden sky draw the night in around him? His wife gone off with a stranger, the sanctuary of their island castle now a monument to her absence? How?

Cul de sac is a portrait of a marriage, a black comedy of desire and its discontents. A 45-year old man besotted with love for his 24-year old wife has bought a castle where he hopes to live out an idyll. How to make a triangle in such a remote place (every couple needs a third person to reveal them to themselves)? A handsome young man making occasional visits will do, as will an injured gangster seeking refuge, and even a passing acquaintance. ‘Coupledom is a performance art’: these three men give the couple ample occasion to perform. What do we, the spectators, see?

We see George, a wealthy Englishman who’s sold his business to pursue something more spiritual—love (the couple he forms with his French wife, Teresa), art (he paints), harmony with nature (the tidal island far from the city)—at once revelling in and resisting his own humiliation. And we see Teresa, casual in her contempt, giving no sign that she has any love to give him.

Donald Pleasence as George

Françoise Dorléac as Teresa

So, if George’s humiliation (as the ending suggests) is the core of the film, is Teresa its source? Yes and no. Yes, if we assume one-way love is humiliating: she is indifferent to his love. No, if we remember that every entrance is also an exit: ‘At the beginning of a love affair one might ask What am I getting into? or What am I getting out of? ’. As George sits alone on the rock, the last word he utters is ‘Agnes’, the name of his first wife. What did he see himself getting out of when things ended with Agnes? What did he see himself getting into when they started with Teresa? As Cul de sac is interested in psychological situation, not explanation, we don’t know. Indeed, we are not privy to the couple’s secret—‘the secret the couple have to keep—mostly from each other—is what they are hiding from and that they are hiding’—and therefore we cannot say that Teresa is the source of George’s humiliation. We can, however, say that she is its agent. Indeed, her casual disdain does nothing for his virility, and the sado-masochistic relationship he takes refuge in is—to an outsider—humiliating.

George, I am suggesting, has made his bed and must lie in it (alone). Which leaves me free to turn to Teresa.

In jeans and sweater, her long hair loose, she goes about barefoot, radiating a sexuality free of any artifice. There’s dignity in her self-containment, a child-like spontaneity in her boldness. She does what she pleases, she makes no demands; for her, yesterday and tomorrow are but abstractions. No wonder George fell for her: Seeking to abandon the cares of the world, what could be better than to live with a care-free woman? And yet we find him, at the end of the film, alone on a rock, wondering where it all went wrong.

Did he forget the perils of passion, the asymmetry between man and woman? Did he forget that, structurally, women love only themselves? And did he forget that the charm of his beloved lies precisely in her self-sufficiency? Head over heels in love with her, he did indeed forget. But Roman Polanski didn’t. And from this knowledge he fashioned a tragi-comic rendering of a man in love. Men can flex their biceps in protest, barricade themselves against poor George. But in their heart-of-hearts they know he is already inside them.

The quotations are from Adam Phillips, Monogamy (UK: Faber and Faber, 1996) pp. 5, 18, 67. For the assertion that women love only themselves, see Freud, ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995), pp. 545-560.