Friday, July 27, 2012

Neglected Gem #21: Death and the Maiden (1994)

Stuart Wilson, Ben Kingsley, and Sigourney Weaver star in Death and the Maiden

In Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, set in an unidentified South American country after the fall of a dictatorship, a woman comes across the man who tortured and raped her, repeatedly, to the strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Paulina is now married to Gerardo Escobar, the man who recruited her to fight in the underground against the junta – caught and imprisoned, she endured the torture rather than reveal his name – and who has just been selected to chair the newly formed human rights commission, mandated to investigated the atrocities committed under the old government. But Paulina fears a whitewash, since the only cases the commission plans to investigate are the ones that ended in death. So when Escobar, stuck with a broken-down car in a fierce rainstorm, invites into their home the stranger who rescued him with a lift, and Paulina recognizes her rapist, Miranda, she ties him up, gags him, and initiates her own kangaroo court, seeking a justice she’s certain the commission will never exact.

This script, which was produced in London with Juliet Stevenson and on Broadway with Glenn Close (and Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss as the two men), is a particularly moronic example of the social-problem melodrama. A play of this kind – another, with a similar plot, is William Mastrosimone’s Extremities – uses simplistic, easily identifiable characters to pound out its thesis, reducing complex issues to neatly carved-out slabs of narrative information labeled with little tags to explain what they mean and how we’re intended to view them. The dramatic progression, which is supposed to feel inexorable, is exasperatingly predictable, since after the first half hour or so no one shows any new sides. A play like Death and the Maiden is a corruption of the social dramas Ibsen wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, which reimagined the well-made boulevard melodramas of Scribe and Sardou to land the Victorian audience, by the end, in strange, uncharted territory, without moorings. By contrast, a twelve-year-old could read the map of a play like Death and the Maiden. And maybe that’s why these bastard children of Ibsen and the socialist playwrights of the thirties are always so popular: audiences, and reviewers, too, feel safe basking in their confirmation of the currently accepted stands on a variety of political issues. (Angels in America is the most famous, and most overblown, American entry in this genre.)

When you watch Roman Polanski’s film of Death and the Maiden, released in 1994, starring Sigourney Weaver as Paulina, Ben Kingsley as Miranda, and Stuart Wilson as Escobar, you can hear the director cackling at Dorfman’s well-intentioned fatuousness. It’s not just that Polanski is clearly conscious of how bad the material is (Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias adapted the play); you can feel how much he despises it. And really, who could imagine a director of his background falling for a text in which fascism and violence are colored blocks to be heaved back and forth by mouthpiece characters with no plausible life beyond the bounds of the proscenium arch? With that dark, unpitying humor he can summon up in his best work, Polanski sends up the script; he kicks it straight through the screen. His movie takes place in the gaping hole that’s left.
Ariel Dorfman and Roman Polanski
His equipment is, of all things, nineteenth-century romanticism. He takes his cue from Schubert. Shot by Tonino Delli Colli, the lush, saturated landscape of this unnamed tropical country is easily seen as a setting for primal energies; this is a place that looks like it could absorb the evidence of unspeakable acts like quicksand. The thunderstorm that throws Escobar and Miranda together and claws out the electricity at the Escobars’ home has a Gothic ferocity. Someone quotes Nietzsche; you look at Sigourney Weaver’s elongated guerilla body and that face like a fully animated African mask, and you know you’re looking at the Superwoman. Weaver’s Paulina stalks out into the storm for a cigarette, and her crazy embracing of the elements seems no more preposterous to us than it would if we saw Cathy Linton or Eustacia Vye out there, breathing in the drenched air because any house must be stifling to her. She steals Miranda’s car while her husband is entertaining him (and she’s thought to be asleep in the bedroom), drives it to the edge of a cliff, and shoves it over into the hungry waves through sheer will. The scene’s absurd, a burlesque, but on the level on which this movie operates – as a kind of high-romantic cartoon, bouncing on the improbable helium of Weaver’s immense, savage presence – you believe in it.
Weaver physicalizes every moment of her performance; she hurtles the irresistible force of Paulina through the muscles in her neck and her mouth, her teeth, and those amazing cheekbones; jagged, her nerves rippling, she bursts through any semblance of civilization. Before tying up her captured enemy, who lies asleep on the living-room sofa, she sidles up to him and sniffs him like a wolf checking out its prey. And when she gets to Paulina’s big speech, where she tells her husband the details of her humiliation by Miranda – details Escobar never knew, never asked to know – she moves so far beyond Dorfman’s phony dramaturgy that you forget there is a script.Weaver uses her wit – she must be, along with Anjelica Huston, the wittiest actress of her generation – to locate the undoused light of Paulina’s awareness, which her agony has sharpened into irony. But she responds to the memory of Miranda’s loathsome embraces like a body reacting to electric shock. Describing the rape, her voice softens and her mouth overworks itself: you can see she’s struggling to get the words out. The unkind notices Weaver received in some quarters for this performance may have to do with the unconventionality of acting choices like this one; who else would have chosen to read these lines in this way? I also think that at her best she’s too much for a lot of viewers to handle. Her performance is terrifyingly experiential: she hauls herself through this woman’s awful history – and hauls us along with her.
Polanski can be weird about actors; he tends to cast them for qualities he sees in them as much as for their talents. In his previous picture, a bizarre comedy of sexual masochism called Bitter Moon, he used Peter Coyote as a scabrous, decaying cuckold, Emmanuelle Seigner as the woman he abuses and teaches to be cruel, and Hugh Grant as a prim English honeymooner who is shocked and seduced by their incredible tale.  Coyote and Grant had the skills to make these roles work for them; Seigner didn’t, though one look at her face told you what Polanski must have seen in her. (The fact that she was his girl friend aided in making the movie a decidedly odd experience.) Death and the Maiden features a stolid American actor, Stuart Wilson, as the freshly appointed human rights commissioner whose paltry liberalism can’t begin to get at the depth of Paulina’s horror, or her desire for revenge. Wilson is flat – Polanski seems to have directed him to be. And Ben Kingsley, in an inexplicable accent, plays the trapped rapist. Polanski must have wanted the cryptic quality Kingsley sometimes shows, but his menacing-Sphinx side isn’t his best side, and his acting here is a muddle. That’s true, at least, until Miranda gives his ultimate, self-justifying speech, to which Kingsley lends some genuine feeling and complexity. I don’t think the limitations of either of these performances make a dent in the movie’s power, however. Weaver’s Paulina spews out the details of her past like phlegm she can never get rid of. Weaver’s scythe-like portrait of a woman in extremis works in tandem with Polanski’s embittered romanticism to hack a turbulent, unhinged movie out of Dorfman’s stale vehicle.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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