I sometimes feel so dirty for loving Polanski’s movies so much but I simply can’t help it, they’re that good. I strongly believe in the separation of the art and the artist. And I think that because of his early successes, he got the opportunity to work on some wonderful scripts. Death and the Maiden, based on a popular play, is a claustrophobic and intense single-location thriller. Add to this the fact that the story is unfolding in real-time and you got yourself a winner. At least by my standards. The story is set inside a house on a stormy night. In that house, we find a woman who thinks she finally caught the man who tortured her when she was young. As you can see, this is a very intriguing premise indeed but with a bitter aftertaste.
I say bitter because you know that shit like this was commonplace not just in South America but all over the world. In fact, it’s so common that even I know a person who was beaten because of his political beliefs. By the police, just to be clear, in a police station. That’s how these things work. You could say that the main themes of Death and the Maiden are revenge, justice, and coming to terms with what’s happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as you first have to get through quite wobbly first twenty minutes. Perhaps still under the influence of Under Suspicion, a similar single-location thriller, I found these parts of the movie drawn out.
Also, at times, the movie would venture into these almost surreal but certainly not realistic situations. And sure, you could find explanations why a man held captive wouldn’t run away while his captors are just talking, but I think that these scenes just feel off. They defuse the tension and seem like a handy excuse for exposition dumps. Just from a structural point of view. From an emotional point, I can see where they were going with them. This is why I found Death and the Maiden to be quite uneven. Some parts and uncomfortably intense and compelling while others were a bit unconvincing. Especially when you consider the gravity of the situation and the general theme of the movie.
Gerardo Escobar has just been elected to head the government’s committee in charge of investigating torture and murder committed by the previous dictatorship. He’s on his way home where his beautiful wife Paulina waits for him. However, after he blew a tire, a man offers him a ride home. When they get to his house, Paulina overhears them talking and remembers something. Remembers something awful…
Death and the Maiden is probably the strangest revenge movie you’ll ever see. It’s not afraid to delve into the gruesome technicalities of torture and subsequent moral dilemmas. However, when it comes to storytelling it doesn’t offer the classic narrative we’re used to seeing in these movies. I found this both refreshing and puzzling at the same time. And I still don’t know what to think about it.
Perhaps this is for the best. We also shouldn’t forget about the massive weight of the main theme of the movie, ruthless torture. And then we also have the moral question of what would you do if you met your torturer? Would you torture him? Would you straight-up kill him? Is such a thing worth jail time? When it comes to the cast of Death and the Maiden, Ben Kingsley stole the show for me here. He was just so mesmerizing that I couldn’t take my eyes off him despite Sigourney being my homegirl.
I have to admit that she was good for the most part but struggled with certain elements of the script. Stuart Wilson gave another subdued and realistic performance, just like in Wetherby. And while we’re dropping names, I have to mention Sexy Beast, another single-location thriller with another Kingsley masterclass performance. Finally, if you’re looking for movies like Death and the Maiden, check out Polanski’s A Pure Formality. It’s a more straightforward and tighter thriller.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Ariel Dorfman, Rafael Yglesias
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson
Fun Facts: Roman Polanski wanted Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston for the leads.
IMDb Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109579/