DIRECTOR: ROMAN POLANSKI/WRITER: ARIEL DORFMAN (play, screenplay), RAFAEL YGLESIAS (screenplay)/BUDGET: 12 MILLION/GROSS: $3,103,716
Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, The Pianist. When people discuss Roman Polanski’s work it’s usually those films that come to mind. However, when I think Polanski, Death And The Maiden is often first and foremost in my head. The three aforementioned films are great - but for me, Death And The Maiden, is maybe my favorite of them all (which isn’t an easy thing to say given how good Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby are).
Set in an unnamed South American country, Sigourney Weaver's character (Paulina Escobar) is living with her husband (Stuart Wilson), a high profile attorney. One day, because of a storm, he is forced to get a lift home from a helpful citizen (Ben Kingsley). However, when Paulina hears the man's voice she thinks he sounds like the doctor who had raped and tortured her under the old fascist regime...
The film is based on the play by co-screenwriter Ariel Dorfman and it has been brought to the screen brilliantly by Polanski. I really like it when a film can go so minimalist on sets - basically staging the whole thing in one house - and make it work. We are used to that with plays, but with movies the audience seems to expect more because more can be done.
However, sometimes less is more, which is especially true here, where 95% of the film takes place in the Escobar's home with mostly just candles for light and the storm outside. And this is all possible because Polanski is working with such a strong script and great performances from all three actors.
The film is intense and claustrophobic as Paulina tries to get the truth out of him and her husband tries to play mediator between her and the law, not sure if she is right about the man, or just traumatized. The film doesn't make it easy for you to decide either. What you think is true one minute can make you completely unsure the next. The use of music is also great, as Shubert's Death And The Maiden becomes a supporting player in the film.
Death And The Maiden is definitely one of Polanski's least known movies, but it is without question one of his best.