Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Latin American Gothic

Roman Polanski's overwrought version of "Death and the Maiden" undermines the play's tidy message of tolerance.

Published September 9, 1998 4:32PM (EDT)

Plenty of talented directors don't bother to hide their contempt for the
hack scripts they've been assigned, but you don't expect them to
choose shallow, mediocre material as the basis for their most
personal work. That's just what Roman Polanski did with his film of Ariel
Dorfman's human rights problem play "Death and the Maiden." It's an
exceptionally intelligent and controlled piece of direction, and for once
Polanski didn't hide his emotions in a death's-head grin. The movie is raw
and passionate and unresolved in a way that's unique among his work.

At first Polanski's direction seems as artificial as the material (adapted
by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias) because he's taken his stylistic cues
straight from Dorfman's setting: a secluded house on a dark, stormy night.
Polanski doesn't bother to soft-peddle the melodramatic touches: the
crashes of thunder and the power failures, the storm-tossed waves breaking
onto impossibly steep cliffs, the sudden bursts of action accompanied by
huge blasts of soundtrack music. Instead of opening the play up, he
constricts it, makes it stagier.

Polanski wants us to see how Dorfman's neat little parable is aesthetically
rigged, so he can show us how it's intellectually, emotionally and morally
rigged. He's like a workman gutting a house, tearing it down to the bare
walls, exposing the structure and the wiring. Only instead of rebuilding
it, Polanski explodes it, clearing a space for Sigourney Weaver to stalk
through the rubble like a battered Amazon queen exacting her revenge.

Weaver plays Paulina, one of thousands tortured by the military
dictatorship that's just been deposed in her unnamed Latin American
country. Her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), formerly a student
opposition leader, is now a famous lawyer, appointed by the newly elected
president to head up a committee investigating the military's human rights
abuses. His car gets stuck during a storm, and when a motorist (Ben
Kingsley) gives him a lift home, he invites the stranger in for a drink.
Paulina recognizes their guest as Dr. Miranda, the man who tortured and
raped her while playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." She never saw
her torturer; he always kept her blindfolded. But Paulina remembers his
voice, his laugh, his smell. While he's sleeping on the couch, she cold-cocks him with the butt of a gun and ties him to a chair. When he comes to,
despite his protestations that he's done nothing wrong -- and despite
Gerardo's insistence that she let him go -- Paulina, holding the gun on
both of them, proposes to put Miranda on trial.

It's easy to see how Dorfman's play was meant to work: as a battle between
our thirst for revenge and the voice of conscience that calls us to a
higher form of justice. In the end, we're meant to see that, yes, brutality
begets brutality, and to victimize our victimizers is to sink to their
level -- it's like the Amnesty International version of "Extremities."

Polanski isn't having any of this. How could he? A man who spent his
childhood running from the Nazis isn't likely to buy into a stage melodrama
that pretends to answer questions about the nature of evil. For Dorfman,
Gerardo is the play's voice of sanity; for Polanski, he stands for the
blissfully ignorant certainty of principles untested by experience.
Gerardo's trite little homilies, like "In a democracy the midnight knock on
the door can be friendly," are the luxuries of a man who's never had to
face the reality of what he opposed. When Gerardo asks Paulina if she's
aware of the consequences of her actions, it's a bad joke. Arrested for
transporting Gerardo's papers and tortured because she refused to reveal
his name, she's already faced the worst possible consequences.

Far from a victim whose judgment has been clouded by her ordeal, Paulina
becomes the new moral center of the material, the only character who takes
responsibility for her actions. There are times when the film's entire
meaning seems contained in the way Weaver strides across the
screen. Tall and sinewy, Weaver gives Paulina's every movement power and
purpose. She moves like someone who's always conserving her power for a
survival test waiting right around the corner. When a strange car pulls up
in the driveway, she douses the lights and gets a gun as if she's run
through this drill hundreds of times before.

Weaver immerses herself so fully in this obsessive character that we come
to see Paulina's actions as necessary. Dorfman peppers his script with
allusions to Paulina's unstable behavior, suggestions that Miranda's alibi
might be true. Weaver goes at the role so unflinchingly that she makes
those what-ifs seem like a safety net Dorfman has provided himself.
Paulina's command of the situation is undeniably thrilling -- the animal
way she sniffs the sleeping Miranda to make sure he's the right man, the
calm way she puts a bullet in the floor a few feet from Gerardo when he
tries to untie Miranda. She's operating on pure instinct and considering
the weight of each action at the same time. And Weaver is testing us,
asking how far we're willing to follow her. In her big monologue, before
she tells Gerardo, for the first time, exactly what Miranda did to her,
she asks him, "You really think you can stand it?" She might as well be
asking us. Weaver doesn't push a thing, but she makes you feel as if you're
living through every bit of it with her, even as you can hear the dead spot
she's forcing into the center of her emotions in order to maintain control.

If "Death and the Maiden" were solely a justification of Paulina's actions,
it would have the easy comfort of a revenge fantasy. But the key line is
Paulina's: "No revenge can satisfy me." For all the rage here, there's an
impotence to the film. Polanski is torn between the victim's moral
certainty of what constitutes evil and the artist's responsibility to
understand even what he finds alien and repugnant. He seems to be saying
that all of the violence he's put on screen hasn't exorcised any of the
demons that have intruded on his life. When, at the end of the film,
Kingsley's Dr. Miranda is held in close-up for four minutes while he talks
about how he became seduced by the chance to wield absolute power over his
charges, the rage that keeps Polanski (and Paulina) going dissipates before
the awful realization that, as Renoir said, "Everyone has his reasons."

"Death and the Maiden" is some sort of endpoint for Polanski. Paulina says,
"It's time for me to reclaim my Schubert." But as she sits in a concert
hall at the film's coda, listening to "Death and the Maiden" while Miranda
sits with his family in a private box, she looks cut off from the music,
unable to trust what it's telling her ever again. Polanski's film stands in
complete contradiction to the belief in art's power to enlighten. Culture
is paralysis here, or at best a dodge, the thing that allows Miranda to
hide what he's done behind his appreciation of Schubert -- and that allows
audiences who have spent $70 on a night at the theater to think that
they've dealt with the nature of evil. "Death and the Maiden" not only
makes it seem unnecessary for Polanski to ever make another movie, it makes
it seem impossible.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Latin America Roman Polanski Torture