Death and the Maiden

It’s easy to forget that Sigourney Weaver started out as a comic actress in off-Broadway plays (mainly by Christopher Durang). Physically, she’s well-designed for comedy, particularly when she towers over her male co-stars. Yet her body has proven itself equally adept at drama. Weaver, of all American actresses, has perhaps the most elastic and expressive physique, whether crouching among the primates (and gradually becoming simian) in Gorillas in the Mist, or tight with anguish and purpose in the Alien series. In Death and the Maiden, a hard-driving and intimate thriller directed by Roman Polanski, we know Weaver is playing a woman struggling with memories of torture even before she opens her mouth, and maybe even before the camera moves in to consider her haunted features. It’s in the way she holds her body, as if to reassure herself that it’s now hers again. It’s in the panicked way she runs from candle to candle during a power outage, blowing them out when headlights approach. And as the story unfolds and Weaver surrenders herself to ferocious rage and disgust, her body, paradoxically, becomes more fluid, relaxed, as though her wounded flesh were animating itself to seek vengeance, beyond her conscious control.

Death and the Maiden, adapted by Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) from Dorfman’s play, uses a minimalist thriller set-up to explore the psyche of the torturer as well as the tortured. The story takes place in an anonymous Latin American country after the fall of a brutal dictatorship. Paulina (Weaver), we learn, got involved in radical activities as a college student. Pressed to name her boyfriend Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), a writer for a revolutionary paper, Paulina refused and was beaten, raped, and subjected to grisly electroshock torture. We don’t see any of this in flashback, but we will hear plenty about it in the scenes to come. Gerardo, now married to Paulina, has just been appointed head of a commission looking into tortures resulting in death. That’s not good enough for Paulina (whose torture resulted in a life of fear and anger); she wants absolute justice. Weaver makes us feel Paulina’s disappointment in her husband (who, working within this new bureaucracy, probably could never act fast enough, decisively enough, to satisfy her). And there’s a suggestion, later elaborated on, that Gerardo feels unworthy of her. He knows he couldn’t have endured what she endured to save him.

Fate, however, delivers satisfaction into Paulina’s lap — in the person of Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), who gives Gerardo a ride home one rainy night. Miranda, who seems decent and middle-class and bland, congratulates Gerardo on his fine work rounding up those horrible torturers. Paulina, though, smells a rat — literally. She picks up his scent, hears his voice from the next room, and convinces herself that Miranda was the one who raped and tortured her (she had been blindfolded during each session). Viciously, she turns the tables, subjecting Miranda to her own brand of humiliation, intimidation, and interrogation. What’s so powerful and daring about Death and the Maiden is that it gradually begins to play like a deeply sick romance — and a romantic triangle. The well-meaning, ineffectual Gerardo can never know what Paulina went through. Only Miranda knows — only Miranda has attained that level of diseased intimacy with her. If, indeed, he is guilty. Polanski, the great living bad boy of international film, eroticizes this central conflict every chance he gets. The movie isn’t offensive, but it’s potent enough to scare off the faint of heart. In scene after scene, Polanski kicks the movie up to a level of emotional violence rare in English-speaking films.

Paulina keeps insisting that Miranda confess; Miranda puts up a wall of heated, appalled denials. She’s very convincing. So is he. On one level, Death and the Maiden is a gripping suspense machine: Is he guilty or not? If so, what will she do to him? Does she have a right to take revenge even if he is guilty? Is she right or is she crazy? Is she both? Polanski is right at home in this claustrophobic setting, as he was in his bookend paranoid classics Repulsion and The Tenant; he digs in with both hands. I was one of very few viewers not disgusted or offended by his previous film, Bitter Moon, which I consider perhaps the finest anti-romantic comedy ever made. Polanski can lull you inside a mindset you’ve been conditioned to denounce. You find yourself not condoning it, exactly, but understanding it, coming close enough to shudder, acknowledging that evil is not Other but simply an aspect of humanity. In Death and the Maiden, Polanski and Dorfman have the titanic balls to address what torture does to its perpetrators as well as its victims — not in a touchy-feely, “I was abused as a child and that justifies the evil I do” way, but in a clear-eyed manner that carves away our doubts. A climactic monologue, delivered on a cliff against a gray sky and crashing waves, is chillingly direct in its assessment of what leads a certain type of person in a certain situation to enjoy inflicting pain. It’s like an extension of John Huston’s line in Polanski’s Chinatown: “Most people never have to face that at the right time and place, they’re capable of anything.”

The movie is a peerless example of alchemy. Roman Polanski has taken a vaguely political tract and transformed it into something darker, more open, Polanski-esque. I left feeling chilled and disturbed and highly exhilarated, my senses heightened. Death and the Maiden never lets you off the hook — it leaves you twisting on it helplessly. And it has the most evocative final shot — the three characters exchanging cold glances at a concert — I’ve seen at the movies in years.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's best, thriller

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