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‘Death and the Maiden’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1995


Roman Polanski
Sigourney Weaver;
Ben Kingsley;
Stuart Wilson
nudity, violence and language

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It's all so sumptuous, so Helmut Newton: Bondage. Torture. Leftist politics. Sigourney Weaver, posed bare-armed and heroic in the rain, like a Valkyrie goddess. "Death and the Maiden" is exiled Polish director Roman Polanski's film adaptation of exiled Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's Broadway hit about a chance encounter between a former political prisoner and her torturer. Unfortunately, it's little more than a swanky revenge fantasy for Vanity Fair liberals who like to have their anti-fascism dressed up in garter belts and handcuffs.

Set on the deserted arm of a peninsula "somewhere in Latin American," the film immediately loses its political credibility by declaring itself, essentially, generic. Dorfman himself is in flight from the Chilean government, so why the rhetorical generalization and emasculation of his material; why not have the incident take place in Chile? Why turn real-life events into a glib metaphor?

The political circumstances of the film's post-revolutionary setting are intentionally sketchy. What's clear is that the fascists, who tortured thousands of citizens, have just been ousted from power. During the transition from fascism to democracy, the question of punishment for suspected abusers of power has to be addressed. According to the government, however, prosecution will be sought only in those cases "involving the death of the victim."

But Paulina (Weaver) "is" dead -- or at least not fully alive. Alone in the modest bungalow she shares with her husband, she seems spooked by every creak in the floorboards. A storm has knocked out the phones and the electricity; her husband -- who has just been selected to head the investigations into previous police excesses -- is long overdue.

But come on. Who can look at this proudly indomitable creature and accept her as a victim? Victimized, yes, but never a victim. Peering off into the distance from the front porch, Paulina is wearing a wet shirt and her jaw is thrust out in angry apprehension. You can't help but think, "What could possibly come down that road that could faze this woman?" Three times now, Sigourney has kicked alien butt -- and now she's scared?

Yeah. And monkeys might fly out my bottom.

Let's not get confused here. Weaver is immensely powerful as the enraged victim of a prison doctor who was supposed to examine her, but instead raped her 14 times, always while playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" on a scratchy Victrola. But the fundamental strength of Weaver's personality doesn't work here. Nor does her particular style of rage and sorrow.

The other two members of the film's three-person cast never work their way out of Weaver's shadow. As the doctor -- whom she believes to be her torturer but whose face she never saw -- Ben Kingsley works hilarious vocal feats to prove himself a regular guy. Stuart Wilson is a dead bore as Gerardo, Paulina's husband, who must bear the weight of standing in for law and rationality over revenge.

Essentially, the play is a wrestling match interrupted periodically by moral debate -- or vice versa. Polanski stages some lovely moments, particularly Paulina's candlelit dinner in her closet. But he also undercuts the high-minded ideals of Dorfman's original (adapted here by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias) by exposing its radical chic pretentions. That's probably giving Polanski the prankster too much credit -- but it is a nice thought.

Death and the Maiden is rated R for nudity, violence and language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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