Death and the Maiden

In a remote beach house on a cliff, a woman (Sigourney Weaver) rewards the doctor (Ben Kingsley) who gave her lawyer husband (Stuart Wilson) a lift home on a stormy night by tying him to a chair, stuffing his mouth with her panties and holding a gun to his head. A twisted romantic triangle? You might have thought so from Mike Nichols' lightweight 1992 production of Ariel Dorfman's play with Glenn Close, Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss. You won't think so now. Director Roman Polanski restores the play to the pulsepounding political thriller it is. His electrifying film nearly jumps off the screen.

Set in an unnamed South American country, clearly Dorfman's native Chile, Maiden combines shuddering suspense with stinging moral gravity. Polanski, working from a fluid script by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias (Fearless), gives the story its due. He creates an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension to rival his Knife in the Water and Repulsion.

Ghosts of a dictatorship evoking that of Chilean general Augusto Pinochet haunt this house by the sea. Weaver's Paulina Escobar had been a political prisoner 15 years before. Her husband, Gerardo (Wilson), is now a member of the human-rights commission that will aid his country's transition to democracy. But fear grips Paulina. When Gerardo isn't home, she eats alone in her closet, locked away from the noises that might spell a new threat. She thinks she recognizes the voice of Kingsley's Dr. Roberto Miranda as the sadist who blindfolded, raped and tortured her while listening to a tape of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." Is Paulina right — she never saw her tormentor — or is she driven by revenge? Gerardo is horrified by her intent to serve as judge and executioner. "Either way," says Paulina, "he's fucked."

Polanski keeps the situation ambiguous to provoke questions of guilt and responsibility. As always, he gets superb performances. Wilson finds Gerardo's uncertain conscience. And Kingsley is a marvel, making the doctor a tantalizing mix of innocence and malice. Weaver, the American goddess, takes some getting used to as a Latin, but her fierce, haunting portrayal fulfills Dorfman's hope that "what we feel when we watch and whisper and ache with these faraway people could well be that strange trembling state of humanity we call recognition."

From The Archives Issue 700: January 26, 1995