Vengeance is hers in a taut 'Death and the Maiden'

January 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Highly theatricalized forms like one-, two- or three-character plays almost never work on the screen because they can't break away from their theatricality. They feel phony all the way through. But Roman Polanski manages the nearly impossible: He makes Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden" feel like an authentic, spontaneous experience.

A simple, powerful premise: In a country that has to be Dorfman's native Chile, in the glow of restored democracy, a woman who was a torture victim by incredible coincidence comes face-to-face with the man she believes tortured her. She pulls a gun and captures him, to her liberal husband's horror: Then she sets out to do to him what he did to her -- get a confession at any cost. The ends justify the means.

Polanski makes one sensible decision at the start. Rather than make any absurd attempts to suggest Chilean Spanish, he lets the characters work out their destinies in colloquial American English. Further still, to avoid inappropriately clashing accents, he requires that the Englishmen Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson play their parts in the bland syllables of central Iowa.

Somehow it works -- English actors pretending to be American actors pretending to be Chileans -- or at least you get used to it: In last year's "House of the Spirits," also set in an "unnamed country" that had to be Chile, the jangle of conflicting cosmopolitan tones reduced the story to comic jumble in the first few minutes!

Alas, the clank of melodramatic chains is heard in the setup. Traumatized housewife Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) is stunned when her husband, liberal lawyer Gerardo Escobar (Wilson), has a car breakdown on the way to their isolated beach house and is picked up and dropped off by Dr. Robert Miranda (Kingsley), whom Paulina believes, on the evidence of voice and odor alone, raped and tortured her 15 years earlier during the military dictatorship. By absurdities too convenient to be believed, Miranda returns that night, and Paulina captures him while her husband sleeps.

Polanski gets into some titillating areas that are equally fascinating and repelling (remember, he directed "Repulsion"). One is the sexual subtext to torture: When Paulina whacks Miranda with her Beretta, then ties him to a chair, the whole sequence has an unsettling erotic ardor to it.

The intimacy is overpowering: Her body cooingly envelopes his; when she ties him, one feels her heat and excitement, her sensual pleasure at his helplessness. She licks his neck, she snorts his odor like a cocaine of the spirit; the whole thing has the eerie sense of a female spider about to devour her poor, spent mate.

But it's the central section of the film -- one presumes it dTC corresponds to Act II on stage -- when Paulina convenes a trial, with her baffled and compliant husband (Wilson is good in a role that calls for yeoman's stolidity, not charisma) serving as Miranda's defense attorney, that works the best. It's constructed around a neat irony: Paulina was tortured to give up the name of her "control" in the resistance, who was of course Gerardo, who now must defend the man who may have tortured her.

This yields incredible tension: It's a cat-and-mouse game as much between husband and wife as between captive and captor, as these issues are worked out in dramatic terms. Weaver is particularly good: There's no sense of star's vanity or of self-indulgence; she's just totally traumatized victim, lashing out irrationally, really willing and eager to enjoy the pleasure of her revenge to its maximum. It teaches certain truths about the world: Just as the abused make the most satanic abusers, so too do the tortured make the most committed torturers.

"Death and the Maiden" -- the title is from the Schumann piece Miranda allegedly played during torture sessions 15 years ago -- somewhat breaks down in its third act. Too much clunky stage business intrudes -- lights flashing on at the precise moment that they're struggling for control of the gun, the phone jangling exactly as they're deciding Miranda's fate, the artificial imposition of a time limit.

And I don't think the film ever comes up with a satisfactory climax. In fact, we do learn the truth about Miranda, and as such things must be, it's more complex than Paulina (and the audience) might have preferred. But such primal tensions have been aroused, one subversively yearns for a more theatrical ending, a bang and not a whimper. It seems a little late in the going to turn from melodrama to drama.

"Death and the Maiden"

Starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley

Directed by Roman Polanski

Released by Fine Line

Rated R

***

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