Roman Polanski's obsession with obsession itself may be the reason he's stayed away from overtly political filmmaking: When you're rooting around in the dungeon of the individual soul, there isn't much time to talk about oppressive regimes.
Seen in that light, Death and the Maiden is something of a departure for Polanski. In adapting Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's harrowing drama about a woman's revenge against the man who may be her former torturer, the exiled director (see accompanying profile) addresses head-on some big issues he's touched on in the course of his thirty-year career--the relativity of "truth," the nature of victimhood and justice, making peace with your demons. At the same time, Polanski's spookiness seems to cut even closer to the bone than usual. The film may be political, but you needn't look very far to find dark parallels to the director's own traumatic life.
This characteristically dense, claustrophobic study of terror and its aftermath is set in a remote cottage in an unnamed South American country, and it unfolds in the course of a single evening. As storm clouds gather and thunder rumbles outside, a tense, edgy woman (Sigourney Weaver) prowls the house. She takes a pistol in hand. Then she takes her dinner in a locked closet. It's vintage Polanski--the kind of haunted nightmare imagery he's given us from Repulsion to Chinatown.
In time, we learn the woman is Paulina Escobar, who fifteen years earlier was blindfolded, tortured and repeatedly raped by an agent of a now-deposed military junta--while a recording of Schubert's Death and the Maiden played in the room. We also learn that Paulina's husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), is the lawyer their country's new democratic government has appointed to investigate the former regime's human-rights violations--but with some crucial limitations on his powers.
When Gerardo's car breaks down, a passing stranger, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), drives him home. It takes Paulina but an instant to conclude that the voice of the "good Samaritan" belongs to her old tormentor. All three of them are in for a long, rough night.
So is Polanski, for the material is all too familiar. When he was a boy, his Jewish mother was gassed at Auschwitz, and for more than a year he survived on his own in war-torn Poland. In 1969, when he was a rising director in Hollywood, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was slaughtered by the Manson family. And in 1977 he was accused of statutory rape in an incident involving a thirteen-year-old girl. He fled from Hollywood, and the case was settled. But he's still barred from entering the United States.
Ever since his bloody version of Macbeth, which came two years after the Manson murders, moviegoers have been rummaging through Polanski's work looking for autobiographical details, and that isn't about to stop with Death and the Maiden.
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Is Paulina a righteous avenger or a deeply wounded paranoiac who's finally losing her grip? Is Dr. Miranda the monstrous sadist she claims he is or an innocent bystander? How does Gerardo Escobar, the vacillating civil-rights activist and guilty husband, fit into this complex moral puzzle? As always with Polanski, the ambiguities are as fascinating as the eventual answers, and the director's personal references once again take on a life of their own.
Aside from all that, this is surely Polanski's most important film in years. The all-night trial to which Paulina subjects Dr. Miranda, with her husband cast as defense attorney and the audience serving as jury, explores grave questions of oppression, guilt, justice and retribution. This is also the kind of horror movie, like all of Polanski's work, in which the monster turns out to be a human being. The vision of Kingsley, still vivid in our memories as the heroic Jewish accountant of Schindler's List, lashed to a chair and accused of unspeakable acts, is unforgettable. So is Paulina's ferocity: Weaver, we suspect, has never before ventured this far into the night.
As for Polanski, he might never have gotten this difficult, forbidding film made at all were it not for the early support of his high-powered stars: Kingsley and Weaver attracted investors where he couldn't, and their searing performances are testament to their commitment. By the time Death and the Maiden builds to its startling climax, we are disturbed and undone. This is nothing new in Polanski country, of course, but with this film he shows us a whole new landscape.