Death and the Maiden
Release date: December 23, 1994
Director: Roman Polanski
Based on the play by: Ariel Dorfman
Screenplay by: Ariel Dorfman & Rafael Yglesias
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson
Much like William Friedkin, one of Roman Polanski’s greatest attributes is his ability to create films out of tight, concealed plays. With Death and the Maiden Polanski shows off that talent by putting together an incredibly tense film.
When a storm and flat tire forces Gerardo Escobar (Wilson) to get a ride home with Dr. Miranda (Kingsley), Paulina Escobar (Weaver) finds herself face to face with the man she is convinced tortured and raped her when she was imprisoned by the country’s old fascist regime. She takes the man captive in an attempt to reveal the truth, while her husband attempts to convince her not to take vengeance, serving as a lawyer to the interrogation she has started.
The bulk of the film takes place within a cabin home near the ocean, with the two characters being joined by the third in a timely manner. Polanski creates an atmosphere of pure suffering and he spares no expense at making every single character here play the role of the victim and the villain at some point. The film focuses on building tension through dialogue, as the arguments between the couple and the captive man grow progressively more unsettling. Writers Dorfman and Yglesias don’t hold back on the descriptive nature of Paulina’s memories and it really provides the background necessary for the audience to understand her motives better.
A recurring use of Schubert’s somber composition enhances the dark mood of the film, opening and closing it while being played multiple times in between. It was a piece of music that Paulina was subject to listen to over and over again while imprisoned and it only makes sense she would do the same to her prisoner now. It’s a twisted little touch to the already warped courtroom drama that is set up here, and it’s quite the nice touch.
While Kingsley and Wilson both do a fine job, Sigourney Weaver turns in one hell of a performance as Paulina Escobar, completely stealing the show. While it may come off as though she plays into the psychotic woman trope due to the male heavy input from directors and writers, this is far from the reality of the situation. Her neurosis and past experience is what propels the movie, leading the audience on in question of whether or not her madness is getting the best of her. Polanski often plays with the mental stability of his female characters — take Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby as two major instances — and yet Weaver’s portrayal of Paulina is the only one with all the power in her hands.
Regardless of whether or not Weaver’s mad portrayal was an issue as some have complained, Polanski makes sure that the character doesn’t suffer from a sexualized image. We’re meant to see her entirely as a victim, whether she’s telling her husband about her traumatic past or threatening a man by holding a gun to his head. When her breasts are exposed or even when her husband is kissing her body, the camera doesn’t focus on her in an erotic manner. We do, however, subtly see the scars she has on them, long before it is mentioned that those marks are from the events she suffered in her past. Even when she removes her underwear to shove them in Kingsley’s characters mouth, there’s not a hint of sensuality or exploitation.
At the end of the day, Polanski’s Death and the Maiden is a film with stunning performances, where the lines between guilt and innocence are blurred beyond belief.