It would seem that Death and the Maiden couldn't miss.
A psychological thriller set somewhere in South America after the fall of a dictator, it concerns Paulina Escobar, a woman kidnapped and tortured during the dictatorship, her husband Gerardo, a well-respected lawyer who's just been appointed to head a human-rights commission that will investigate murders (but not cases of survival such as Paulina's), and Roberto Miranda, a doctor who gives Gerardo a ride home when his car breaks down and who Paulina is convinced was her torturer. Although blindfolded throughout her captivity, Paulina insists she recognizes Miranda's voice, favorite phrases, smell, mannerisms; nothing will stand in the way of her making him confess. This is potentially electric material, especially since the events take place over one charged night. And also because this three-character story is headed by Sigourney Weaver and, as the enigmatic doctor, Ben Kingsley, actors of no little repute. And finally because the director is Roman Polanski, the nimblest auteur of atmosphere and intensity since Alfred Hitchcock. A must-see, right?
Wrong. This film adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play suffers all the problems of the stage version and then some, even with the addition of crucial new scenes. First and foremost, the script is insufferably well-meaning and high-flown. Dorfman, who adapted his play to the screen along with Rafael Yglesias, was forced into exile from his native Chile, and he's far too prone to filling the dialogue with noble outrage that hinders any sense of dramatic immediacy. "Don't interrupt," Gerardo says to Paulina after she's tied Miranda to a chair with the intention of putting him on trial and having Gerardo serve as his defense lawyer. "If something revolted me about them, it was that they accused so many men and women, that they forged evidence and ignored evidence and did not give the accused any chance of defending themselves, so even if this man committed genocide on a daily basis, he has the right to defend himself." Paulina, for her part, speechifies about guilt and repentance.
Though the film doesn't flash back to the torture scenes, wanting instead to invoke the power of memory and language to convey agony, the power is undercut by histrionics. Revelations become melodramas. And some admissions come dubiously late: it's difficult to believe that, until this night, Paulina had never told Gerardo what the torture of 15 years earlier entailed. The film also suffers from being far too literary, and nowhere more so than in the central conceit: that the torturer played Schubert's String Quartet in d minor, also known as Death and the Maiden, while administering electrical shocks and committing repeated rapes. After gagging Miranda with her underpants and putting a gun to his head, Paulina plays the music, and in an ending that smacks too much of full-circle ironical patness, it's heard again.
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A thriller depends upon logic, and here the logic is off. Paulina asks to speak to Gerardo in private, thus giving Miranda a chance to try to escape. Of course we know he won't, so the moment is manipulative, not suspenseful. The film has many such instances in which we can't suspend disbelief. Polanski tries his best to compensate by making his camerawork fluid and by setting the scene at a picturesque beach house on the edge of a cliff during a, literally, dark and stormy night, with a muted lighthouse beam shining in the distance. But even he can't overcome the essential difficulty: we never believe Paulina capable of inflicting harm. The text is about words, not danger.
And some of the words don't keep their promise. Important issues are raised -- Should Paulina torture her torturer? Since Paulina was tortured for refusing to name her husband, is Gerardo confusing love with being beholden? -- but they aren't dealt with. And completely skipped over is the ethnocentric casting. Whether or not you buy Weaver's iron-clad avenging angel, think about this: why are an American actress and two British actors performing this South American text about human rights in the first place? Why is Polanski, a Parisian Pole, the director? And what does it mean that the only South American in the bunch, good-intentioned Dorfman, goes along with all this? Any of these questions, as it happens, are more compelling than the movie they led to.
Death and the Maiden.
Directed by Roman Polanski. With Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson.