The Psychology of Comedy

Cul-de-Sac (Roman Polanski, 1966)

Looking at a hostage situation, there is quite a lot that can be derived from it that would make it rather whimsical and amusing, especially if the captor is a charismatic bumbling cinematic archetype and the victims are a mismatched pair. While he may make some very dark statements about the functions of a human psyche, Roman Polanski at his very best, can mock his own seriousness and turn his discussion into an absurdist melodrama. In Cul-de-Sac, by far the most complete and critical of all Polanski thrillers, the tussles between the stumbling mess  that is Dickie and the Woody Allen-esque couple of George and Teresa whom he is holding hostage becomes a game of wits. It really is a chess match because each character makes his move within the confines of a house to his or her own personal gains (if you want to know where his 2011 offering Carnage came from, this film is it’s genius great-grandfather). The tides turn in comical ways throughout the film, especially when George’s long time friends come for a visit and Dickie must pretend to be the house servant while Teresa enjoys bossing him around for a while. The odds and ends of Cul-de-Sac are there to say more about the ridiculousness of a psychologically manipulative situation (a hostage crisis is a hell of a mind-warper) than it does about the actual psychological effects behind it. A great filmmaker like Polanski knows that creating the best character study comes from dissecting it’s absurdity and what better way to do it than 3 bumbling idiots quarreling around in a castle?

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