Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 51 (C+)
While Roman Polanski has made more than his share of big, sprawling films- Tess and Chinatown spring to mind- he’s perhaps even more renowned for his most claustrophobic, isolated films, such as Rosemary’s Baby, Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and The Tenant. How curious, then, that his 1994 chamber piece Death and the Maiden fails to make much of an impression. It has all of the elements of a classic Polanski film- heightened tension, a power play, gifted actors- but the elements fail to coalesce into something that could only have come from the great director. Pity, considering how fruitful this scenario could be for drama.
Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) lives in a South American nation with her husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson). The two former revolutionaries live alone, Paulina suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by her torture at the hands of the toppled dictatorship. Gerardo is now a lawyer working as a prosecutor against war criminals of the old regime. One day Gerardo hitches a ride home with a stranger after his car breaks down. The man, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), is charming by appearances, but Paulina finds something familiar in his voice and manner: she believes him to be the man who tortured and raped her years ago. Paulina then takes Dr. Miranda hostage, forces Gerardo to play his lawyer, and starts to plot the man’s death, regardless of whether or not he’s the real guy.
Death and the Maiden is based on Ariel Dorfman’s play, and it plays like something that was clearly conceived for the stage: it’s very insular, something that might work for stage conventions but feel contrived here. Polanski managed to open up Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage 17 years later, but he’s grasping at straws in this case. However elegant his camera movements, he can’t hide that he has nowhere to go with this. The film isn’t as messy as Bitter Moon, but it doesn’t hit the same heights as the earlier film and feels like a disappointment from the seemingly reenergized director. It’s odd that the director of Cul-de-sac (which was conceived as “Waiting for Godot meets Little Caesar”) couldn’t open up Dorfman’s play better.
Then again, there isn’t much to open up. The script (one of the rare cases where Polanski didn’t have a hand in writing the screenplay) is far too on the nose about its points about power, madness, and paranoia. It doesn’t much help that the cast isn’t firing on all cylinders either- Wilson is serviceable but forgettable as Gerardo, and Weaver is so far over-the-top that it’s hard to believe that she could possibly be right, which undermines the already shaky script that pivots on the ambiguity of whether she’s right or not. Kingsley is far stronger, giving a deeply sympathetic performance that still leaves open the possibility that he’s hiding something, but he’s the only one at the top of his game in this turgid revenge story.