An intimate and concentrated 3-person play, Death and the Maiden echoes back to Roman Polanski's early film, Knife in the Water. Two men and one woman go through a trial together, and keep reforming into different '2 against 1' patterns. Instead of a husband jealous of his beautiful wife, however, here the husband has to decide if his wife's vengeance is justified, or if her actions are the result of a nervous breakdown. It's an acting tour-de-force, kept in line by Polanski's careful direction.
With a storm on and the power off, a neighbor shows up at their door, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Paulina recognizes his voice immediately and takes steps to capture him. When Gerardo wakes up, he finds the doctor tied and gagged in the front room, and Paulina demanding Miranda be forced to confess his torturing of her. Gerardo doesn't know what to do ... the doctor looks harmless and pleads innocence.
"Death and the Maiden" is the title of various paintings I've seen in collections of macabre art. Most simply have skeletal creatures molesting nubile females. The common theme seems not to be death, but defilement, the outrage of innocence being spoiled by an evil, male creature. They get pretty spooky. The connection here is made through a piece of classical music.
The systematic torture in repressive regimes got way out of hand in South American countries such as Chile and Argentina. I once knew a Chilean student on a visa who was emotionally weakened by having been imprisoned under extreme circumstances. The tiny bit I learned about him came from his wife; it wasn't an open subject of conversation. A very good Argentinian movie, The Official Story, deals with the wife of a public official who learns that her adopted child was taken from parents murdered by her husband's cronies.
Death and the Maiden sticks to the immediate reality of torture and its effects. Paulina Escobar was tortured and raped 14 times (by Miranda, she claims) but didn't reveal the name of her then boyfriend, Gerardo. Gerardo's protests that she's out of line with the law lose their weight when he realizes that she's already shown herself stronger than he - he doubts he could have held up under torture if it were he that had been captured.
Polanski follows the play closely, to the extent that the dialogue is compressed and stylized in a way that the naturalistic presentation can't always cover. Also, the players don't use Spanish accents, something they probably couldn't pull off. This kills any Latin flavor - there would have to be a Spanish language version with Latino actors to make that work, anyway - but it also makes the story more universal, as if a legacy of political oppression could be alive in England or the United States. The lonely house out on a featureless coastline already appears to place the action in some kind of dramatic limbo, like the beach houses of Criss Cross and Kiss Me Deadly.
The game is to determine whether Paulina is a righteous avenger and Miranda her torturer, or Miranda is an innocent victim of Paulina's neurosis. We know she's disturbed - she chooses to eat her meal alone on the floor of a tiny room. The beyond-all-limits outrage of torture and rape is something one can't properly respond to in any civilized way. Paulina wants a confession or an apology or something to put an end to her nightmare, but she doesn't know what exactly. It requires Gerardo to put aside his ethics as a lawyer and acknowledge a higher justice happening - if only he could be sure. Death and the Maiden does an excellent job of planting hints of guilt and of innocence; we don't know if we're watching Death Wish, or The Ox-Bow Incident.
All the torture, rape and outrage is in the eyes of the actors and the words they speak; there's nothing remotely exploitative about this. 1 At certain points Paulina embraces and touches Miranda with the kind of sadistic tenderness that she herself endured - the effect is frightening. As for the tortures, just verbally describing them is debasing enough, and the raw language used is appropriate. The film masterfully conveys the idea that words can never fully encompass terror.
Death and the Maiden stays small-scale and low-key, building suspense beautifully until we're wondering if it matters whether or not Miranda is the guilty party. Sigourney Weaver is the star here; she shows enormous strength in the character and keeps us hoping that she'll not be revealed as an hysterical paranoid. Stuart Wilson has the tough role of balancing his love for his wife against the possibility that she's gone insane. And Ben Kingsley, so vicious in last year's Sexy Beast, shows many possible layers of deception behind his suffering. 2 This is a very serious political thriller.
New Line's DVD of Death and the Maiden is a beautiful transfer of a very dark film. The Escobar house appears to be lit by candlelight for most of the film, and the encoding doesn't let the blacks clump up or turn into rough pixillated squares. The simple audio is handled with finesse. Besides a so-so trailer, there are no other extras.
This is the first film Savant's seen where one person holds others at bay for an hour with a gun, that doesn't boil down to lame who's-got-the-gun games. This is believable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Death and the Maiden rates:
1. Contrast this with the
Nazi 'torture chic' of The Night Porter, a movie that generates a thrill by elevating the
relationship between a Nazi camp victim and her torturer-rapist doctor to high romance. There are elements
of intellectual truth in the film, as victim and victimizer meet years later to restart their
relationship, but the overall impression is of taboo thrills. The film inspired a decade's worth
of atrocious European movies about imagined sex and perversion in Nazi prison camps.
2. (spoiler) Is Dr. Miranda really so impressed by his neighbor that
he goes out of his way to return a spare tire? I was dreading the idea that Miranda has already
alerted his brother in the secret police and their cronies, who would show up at some point for a bleak
and negative conclusion. The grim endings of most of Polanski's early films encourages this sort