Based on the play by Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden is the story of a woman who believes that a guest at her home is the man who had tortured her years ago as she seeks revenge on him. Directed by Roman Polanski and screenplay by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias, the film is a mystery-drama that explores a woman dealing with trauma and confronting it at a man who supposedly had done something to her many years ago. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson. Death and the Maiden is a riveting and unsettling film from Roman Polanski.
Set mainly at a house in a peninsula in a South American country that just freed itself from years of dictatorship, the film revolves around a woman whose husband has been picked up by a man driving on the way to their house as she believes that this was the man who tortured her some years ago. It is a film that explores trauma as a woman who was once a political activist with her husband set to possibly work for the new president of their country that is reforming itself as they meet this man who maybe her tormentor. The film’s screenplay by Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias is largely straightforward as much of the action takes place in and out of this house during a stormy night where the power is out and only candles are lighting the house.
The script features a lot of monologues and conversations between its three principle characters in Paulina Escobar, her lawyer husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), and this man in Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Paulina is at home making dinner as Gerardo is late as he’s meeting the new president about a new job he has yet to accept while his car had a flat where he is picked up by Dr. Miranda. Dr. Miranda and Gerardo get along immensely yet Paulina recognizes Dr. Miranda’s voice and smell as she would steal his car and destroy it and then take Dr. Miranda hostage with Gerardo watching in horror as Paulina confronts Dr. Miranda about his past. Revelations are upon unveiled with Gerardo also trying to make sense of what happened including his own role as an activist back then as he and Paulina were lovers during that time she was taken prisoner where she was raped and tortured.
Roman Polanski’s direction is largely intimate for the fact that much of it takes place in a house near this cliff side area as it’s shot on location in Chile as it is based on the country’s then-recent history of dictatorship under the rule of Augusto Pinochet that had ended in 1990. While the film opens and ends with a string quartet playing Franz Schubert’s piece in which the film is named after as the piece is also a crucial plot point in the film. While there are wide shots to establish some wide shots in some of the film’s location outside of the house including a lighthouse shown from afar. Much of Polanski’s direction emphasizes on close-ups and medium shots to play into the space of the house as well as having gazing long shots that last a few minutes to play into the monologues and conversations between the characters. The usage of tracking shots and camera pans add to the visual language of the film where Polanski makes sure every room in the film is presented with great detail but also playing into this sense of claustrophobia as the tension rises between Dr. Miranda and Paulina. Polanski also play into the suspense and drama as the power outage and usage of candle lights add to the visual tone where it does feel chilling as it includes a moment where Dr. Miranda needed to pee as it is this uncomfortable yet humorous moment in the film.
There are bits of humor that Polanski puts as much of it is dark though the first act where Dr. Miranda and Gerardo are talking and getting drunk as it’s just this moment in the film where Polanski does loosen things up as it does humanize Dr. Miranda even though it is uncertain if he was Paulina’s tormentor. Even as Dr. Miranda is someone who isn’t sure what Paulina is talking about but he does feel bad for her as Gerardo is stuck in the middle as he gets answers from both of them as it adds to this dramatic tension. Even in the film’s climax as it moves out of the house and at a cliff where Gerardo is trying to reach someone who knows Dr. Miranda to prove his innocence as it is followed by these revelations as it play into what did happen. The ending returns to the same theatre where the string quartet performs yet it is more about who is there and the aftermath of everything as it is an ambiguous ending that raises more questions than answers. Overall, Polanski crafts an engaging yet haunting film about a woman questioning a man who supposedly was her tormentor some years ago.
Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography as it is largely straightforward with its emphasis on low-key lights as well as natural lighting for many of the interior scenes as it is a highlight of the film. Editor Herve de Luze does amazing work with the editing as it is straightforward with a few jump-cuts while knowing when not to cut during some of the monologues as it adds to the film’s visual tone. Production designer Pierre Guffroy and art director Claude Moesching do excellent work with the design of the house as well as the rooms as it play into some of the claustrophobic elements of the film.
Costume designer Milena Canonero does fantastic work with the costumes as it is largely a bit casual from a red dress that Paulina wears, the suit that Dr. Miranda wears, and a robe that Gerardo is wearing as it adds to the chaos in the film. Sound editor Laurent Quaglio does superb work with the sound as it play into atmosphere of the location as well as the sound of what is happening outside of the home. The film’s music by Wojciech Kilar is wonderful for the haunting and understated music pieces that play into the suspense and drama as well as the usage of the music piece by Franz Schubert.
The casting by Patsy Pollock and Mary Selway is terrific as the film feature some appearances from Jonathan and Rodolphe Vega as Dr. Miranda’s son via pictures, Krystia Mova as Dr. Miranda’s wife via picture, and Karen Strassman as a voice on a telephone. Stuart Wilson is incredible as Gerardo Escobar as a lawyer who was a former activist that is set to possibly take an important job as he deals with the chaos of his wife’s accusations towards Dr. Miranda while also seeking answers about what happened when Paulina was taken and did Dr. Miranda did those things.
Ben Kingsley is great as Dr. Roberto Miranda as a man who picks Gerardo up as he later returns a spare tire as he befriends Gerardo while baffled about Paulina as well as the questions she’s giving him where Kingsley display that sense of confusion as well as remorse as someone who is imperfect but also play up the ambiguity of whether or not he was Paulina’s tormentor. Finally, there’s Sigourney Weaver in a sensational performance as Paulina Escobar as a former activist who was captured and taken to prison where she was raped and tortured as a woman still dealing with trauma as she confronts Dr. Miranda where Weaver brings an intensity to her performance as a woman that could be paranoid or is really seeking out the truth as it is one of Weaver’s great performances as a woman in need of answers and closure no matter how unethical she can be at times.
Death and the Maiden is a phenomenal film from Roman Polanski that features great performances from Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson. Along with its enchanting visuals, intimate setting, eerie usage of music, and its study of trauma and torment. It is a film that explores a woman confronting her past in this man who could be her tormentor with her husband watching as he’s trying to make sense of everything that happened at a time when their home country is reforming itself. In the end, Death and the Maiden is a spectacular film from Roman Polanski.
Roman Polanski Films: Knife in the Water - Repulsion - (Cul-de-Sac) – The Fearless Vampire Killers - Rosemary's Baby - Macbeth (1971 film) - (What?) – Chinatown - (The Tenant) – Tess (1979 film) - (Pirates) – Frantic - Bitter Moon - The Ninth Gate - The Pianist - Oliver Twist (2005 film) - The Ghost Writer - Carnage (2011 film) - (Venus in Fur) – (Based on a True Story) – (An Officer and a Spy)
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