Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
Roman Polanski has rarely been a political writer. Most of his films deal with horror or suspense, both real and supernatural. Following a seven year layoff between Tess and Pirates, Polanski began making films at a clip of one every few years. Unfortunately, Pirates (1986) was a fucking fiasco, Frantic (1988) turned out to be a light precursor to The Fugitive for Harrison Ford and Bitter Moon (1992), perhaps his best work since Chinatown is marred by a bizarre and sudden ending.
In 1994, Polanski adapted Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden for the screen. Taking place in unnamed South American country following the fall of a brutal dictatorship, Death and the Maiden begins as one of the director’s most political works, but soon moves into familiar territory, another of his psycho-sexual mousetraps much more similar to Bitter Moon than you’d expect.
Although the country is anonymous in the film, what else can it be but Chile? It’s in South America, coastal, there is a copy of Pablo Neruda’s poetry prominently displayed and a vicious dictatorship has fallen. Hell, Dorfman is a Chilean exile who escaped Pinochet’s regime. It is easy to see what attracted Polanski to the piece. There are only three characters and most of the action is confined to an enclosed space, a small, secluded house near some dramatic coastal cliffs. The action in Knife in the Water and Bitter Moon (except for flashbacks) takes place on boats, The Tenant, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby mostly in apartments. If there is a director who likes tight, claustrophobic settings, it’s Polanski.
In Death and the Maiden, Sigourney Weaver plays Paulina Escobar, a former insurgent who is married to Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), a revolutionary who now holds an important position in the new government. When the regime was in power, Paulina was one of the “disappeared,” captured, raped and tortured. However, she refused to give up any information about Gerardo. But when Gerardo’s car catches a flat tire one dark and stormy night, he is brought home by Dr. Robert Miranda (Ben Kingsley). Paulina recognizes the doctor’s voice as her chief torturer and soon the good doctor has been beaten and bound to a chair. The rest of the film is a three person character drama about whether Paulina is insane or if Dr. Miranda was the man who raped and tortured her (she was blindfolded at the time).
In Bitter Moon, Peter Coyote plays a wheelchair-bound writer who is tortured by his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner). However, before his accident, Coyote’s character kept Seigner in emotional bondage, torturing her because her love for him made her helpless. Once crippled, it was time for her to turn the tables. Same goes for Death and the Maiden. While Paulina was helpless, Miranda had his way with her but his misdeeds awoke a fiery vengeance inside her, one that would come back and revisit him years later.
Since Death and the Maiden is based on a play, it feels stagy and talky. There is very limited action, yet it was Polanski’s most suspenseful film in years. Although Weaver is somewhat uneven as the distraught Paulina, both Kingsley and Wilson bring a touch of class to their characters, even if their American accents slip during moments of high intensity. But this is a film about characters and all three actors hold their own with the tough, emotional material.
Polanski is at his best when he’s not trying to be playful (parts of Rosemary’s Baby are the exception). He is by no means a comedic director as Pirates and What? attest. Frantic is Hitchcock-lite and Harrison Ford is too charming an actor to do well with Polanski while Bitter Moon is just too over the top to be taken seriously. That leaves Death and the Maiden, which is dead serious, to right the ship of Polanski’s oeuvre. Though he still had one of his best films of his career coming, Death and the Maiden is a notable later Polanski release, if not one of the best movies of a wildly uneven career.
by David Harris