Death and the Maiden

(Roman Polanski, France, 1994)


When this film appeared, a review in Cinema Papers suggested that “one now needs a long memory to recall Polanski at his best”. At the time, I only had to cast my memory back to Harrison Ford in the thriller Frantic (1988), which I thought was one of the best films of its year. Between these two films, there had only been Bitter Moon (1992), Polanski’s strange attempt at erotic soap. I’ve never seen a completely uninteresting or unwatchable Polanski film, but I would have to agree that the great days of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) seem far removed.

Death and the Maiden is adapted from the well-known play by Ariel Dorfman, and Polanski deliberately retains its theatrical character. Most of the action takes place in the single setting of a house at night; and there is no attempt to disguise the real American and British accents of the cast, even though the drama is set “somewhere in South America”.

The plot centres on Paulina, fiercely acted by Sigourney Weaver. Paulina was hideously tortured by agents of her country’s fascist government in the ’70s, and now lives with the burning desire to avenge herself against a particular doctor who took part in the torture. Paulina’s somewhat wimpy husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), about to head a commission inquiry into such political crimes, one night brings home a chap named Miranda (Ben Kingsley).

Paulina is immediately convinced that Miranda is her torturer. She knocks him out, ties him up, and begins a no-nonsense inquisition. Polanski masterfully traces the shifting alliances of trust, strategy and passion that swing between these three characters. His use of wide-angle lenses that just slightly distort the space; his orchestration of off-screen sounds and the house’s electric lights going on and off; the brilliant three-shots that define the characters and their psychological moves in terms of foreground and background positions – all this is superbly brought off by Polanski.

One of the things that fascinated me – and finally rather irritated me – about this film is its proximity to the contemporary thriller genre, specifically a cycle of recent films that includes Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991), Poison Ivy (Katt Shea Rubin, 1992), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992), Unlawful Entry (Jonathan Kaplan, 1992) – intimacy thrillers, as I like to call them. All films these play on the deadly ambivalence of intimate relationships: it’s always your spouse, boss, babysitter or psychoanalyst – whoever it is that you trust most in the world – who is the greatest figure of threat. Even the person who is threatened, the central victim of these stories, tends to have some murky desires as well – they want perverse power as much as they want trusting love; they want to kill their loved ones and burn their bridges, as much as they crave the New Age therapy to mend themselves.

Death and the Maiden, as a play or film, shares many striking elements with this recent style of thriller. Our first glimpse of the marital relationship between Paulina and Gerardo is as tense, bickering, fraught and malaise-ridden as those we see in Cape Fear and Unlawful Entry. Theirs is an empty, cold home, precariously dug in against the harsh elements, like the sterile domestic hearth in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Miranda is the classic villain of the intimacy thriller: a doctor, a slightly obsequious guy who wants to make friends with Gerardo, a family man with an excessively normal attachment to wife and kids. Kingsley plays this part extremely well, brilliantly suggesting the hints of malevolence and perversity, of military-precision masculine aggression that may lie beneath his unassuming surface.

As we get deeper into the twists and turns of the plot, we also realise how close this film is to another key theme of the modern thriller, which we could call the enigma of the hysterical woman. It’s often been said that old film noirs of the ’40s often take the form of an inquisition of a woman (usually a femme fatale). Is she telling the truth? Who does she really love? What does she really want, this dark continent of a woman? You can see the thread in film noir classics, such as Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946), The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948) or Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). You can certainly see it most fulsomely expressed in Polanski’s own moody psychological-horror-thriller classic of the ’60s, Repulsion (1965) with Catherine Deneuve.

The modern hang-over of this legacy is Jane Fonda in Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971), except now it’s become more of an interior psychological inquiry: this woman who is a prostitute, who performs her pleasure and manipulates men every day, does she even know anymore who she is or what she wants? Yet Klute, standing at the gateway of ’70s feminism, also gave notice that the whole film noir legacy, with its sometimes stern, patriarchal plots, could be completely turned on its head.

In the ’70s and ’80s, many thrillers metamorphosed into a form of Female Gothic romance. The female heroes of thrillers like Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983), Love Crimes (Lizzie Borden, 1992) and Impulse (Sondra Locke, 1990) – all, note, directed by women – were shown as more or less hysterical, paranoid neurotics, fearing every sound, every intrusion, seeing in very man a potential woman-hating killer. At the same time, these heroines found themselves irresistibly attracted to what they found most threatening: the gorgeous murderers, the sinister but powerful capitalists, the handsome young genius-psychos or smoothly obscene phone callers. This is where the romance part comes in – although it’s a romance that often ends badly for these bold, postmodernist heroines, who have to pick up the pieces of their lives afterwards … That is, if they survive.

What is most striking about these Female Gothic thrillers of the past twenty-five years is that they are clearly on the side of the so-called hysterical woman, where Repulsion, thirty years ago, definitely was not. If these women are paranoid, touchy, prone to wild projections of lurking threat around every corner – if they sometimes take a caress to be a slap, or a slap to be a caress – it’s not because they’re mad, but because they’re very, very intelligent. The modern world is a dangerous, murky and ambivalent place, and the terrors of patriarchy have not yet left us. Women have to be hyper-alert to stay alive, and to stay true to their desires. The credo of the modern paranoid woman is that sentiment which Andrew Sarris once attributed to Fritz Lang: “I’m not paranoid. I am being persecuted”.

This is definitely the sentiment of Death and the Maiden. A lot of the intrigue of the film hinges on the question of Paulina’s supposed instability, illness, flightiness, her suspicious nature: there are dozens of such clinical and everyday terms used to describe her behaviour in the course of the story. You’re almost tempted to agree with some of these derogatory descriptions, particularly when she starts blandly totting up the different ways she can get rid of Miranda’s dead body, if she chooses to do away with him. For a while, you start to think along the classic lines of the morality play: has the tortured become as monstrous as her torturer? Has the lust for revenge driven Paulina evil and insane? In other words, the kind of old-fashioned ethical questions that don’t get asked much these days outside of Clint Eastwood movies.

I sometimes find that questions of this sort fulfil a rather conservative function – they provide an easy way to discount the anger of oppressed people, to avoid the political substance of what’s actually going on. But finally, Death and the Maiden is indeed also on the side of the hysterical woman. In one great moment, when Miranda squeals at Escobar, “your wife’s paranoid, she’s delusional!”, he wisely and compassionately replies: “If she’s crazy, then so’s the whole country”. This country’s not paranoid – it has been persecuted.

Nevertheless, the thriller connection in Death and the Maiden finally left me rather dissatisfied. It’s a case of a film that seems caught between two worlds, or two cultural sectors. For those who mainly watch fairly tame, middlebrow art-films, Death and the Maiden may have a special frisson: its elements of perverse sex, violence, suspense, revenge – even though these elements are actually very discreet – could carry a charge of something different, dangerous, even illicit.

However, for someone who watches a lot of thrillers, Death and the Maiden comes across as a bit half-baked. I felt like I was watching a stage adaptation of Cape Fear tailored for a middle-class, subscription-theatre audience. In real thrillers, the aspects of paranoia, revenge, interpersonal disintegration and social destruction are presented much more vividly. Real thrillers blunder further into tasteless, taboo, politically incorrect areas, even if they sometimes don’t have a clue what they’re doing or saying there.

Death and the Maiden pulls up short before such hysterical confusion. The ending, in particular, has a politeness, a cerebral poise about it, which is annoying. Still, it’s a superbly controlled, unmissable piece of chamber cinema.

MORE Polanski: Cul-de-Sac, The Fat and the Lean, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, The Tenant, Tess, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Knife in the Water

© Adrian Martin July 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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