Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Trial He Never Got

Death And The Maiden(1984) Directed By Roman Polanski
Since Roman Ponlanski has finally been caught after being on the lamb for over 30 years, and is back in the news constantly I've been thinking about all the films of his I've seen, specifically 1994's "Death And The Maiden".Since the film is based on a play from and about Chile, its easy to only look at it's political/historical reflections and terrific performances, but now it seems painfully personal, if not outright confessional. Sigourney Weaver invites Ben Kinglsy over for dinner and drinks, and after her husband falls asleep, she ties him up, and accuses him of torturing and raping her (17 times), as a political prisoner years earlier, where he served as a doctor whose job it was to make sure interrogation subjects weren't "permanently damaged" before information could be extracted (a practice still common in the US where "doctors" are kept on hand during "enhanced interrogation techniques"). She binds and gags him, putting him on trial, and demanding a confession. He insists he was out of the country during the time she was jailed. Her husband played by Stuart Wilson, intermediates, as lawyer for the accused, trying to convince his wife she could be mistaken and have the wrong man. She was arrested to keep her husband out of prison, and nonetheless horrified at the spectacle he begrudgingly goes along with it out of guilt, and also because she had never told him til this very night that she had been raped. Owing to it's origins on the stage, there are only three actors, mostly in real time, making the drama more intense than it might be otherwise. What will Weaver gain with either revenge, knowledge, or justice? What if Kingsly really is the wrong man or the right one? Whose side will Stuart Wilson finally take, his emotions or his intellect? Death And The Maiden, is a first rate thriler, and in light of recent events, a fascinating exploration of power/submission, guilty consciouses and emotionally purges. It's easy to imagine this is Polanski's feeling of being put in a "mock trial", but Kinglsey's final speech is equally an admission, perhaps not even of guilt, but fact. Regret is not expressed here so much as resignation; a feeling of defeat and surrender. ::Spoiler:: The last ambiguous glance between Kinglsey and Weaver, once almost laughable, when viewed autobiographically becomes poignant::SpoilerOver:: Polanski until recently was still free, ironically on his way to receive a "lifetime achievement award" when finally apprehended. How many filmmakers could make a film this intense and personal, from an adaption of an even more significant political event the Augosto Pinoche dictatorship in Chile. Pinoche was a man who tortured, murdered, kidnapped, laundered money to international terrorists, and suppressed free speech for decades was given a military funeral in 2006 when he died in his home. At the time this play had been made he had only been out of power for a year, and five years after this film was made he would placed on "house arrest" for murdering "Spanish" citizens, but released a year later on medical grounds and needless to say sour grapes abound.As playwright Ariel Dorfman gives Pinochet's regime the trail it never got in his play the film is based on, Polanski gives a trial to himself for the story's more specific crimes of rape, and indulgence in absolute control, and the clash of the two forms some of the movies emotional sparks while re-watching it. Even though the complicated public images surrounding the film maker and the original text, changed and enriched my sense of the story, it's most importantly a good movie. "Death And The Maiden" is a psychological drama worthy of Alfred Hitcock's Rope, and more spine tingling than any "Saw" or "Hostel" film; this is torture of another color. Whatever else he is Polanksi makes the case in this film for being a first rate filmmaker, if only in showing he can withhold style and allow his actors to work with each other and their environment (like his best films in the Apartment trilogy this film takes place largely in a single home), and cleverly merge the personal, political, and dramatic.


Karl Leschinsky said...


After the Polanski argument I was engaged in a few weeks ago (and within which I was thoroughly defeated/ made a fool of), I've been trying to stay away from the difficult discussions -- for me at least -- of him. (I am healthier that way.) What I have learned from others is that justice has nothing to do with it. You commit a crime, you gonna pay, you have to pay. That's the way the system has to work if it is ever to work.

Your reasons are irrelevant. What's best for everybody involved in the case is too. It's society's issue now. And society currently operates from a conservative's pro-retribution standpoint. From that perspective, I can see already the characters in this film are in way over their heads. They can't be the ones to sort this out for themselves, for better or for worse.

But I will give this "Doubt" meets "Hard Candy" meets the Polanski story and his Apartment Trilogy style -- even though I'm not sure I believe it will be a confession or the details true to what happened -- a look to see what can be taken away, for myself if not others, from the reactions of the characters involved in the 'trial'.

Joe Sylvers said...

I don't think it's a "confession" but it's a bit like when a rapper named C-Murder" was arrested and tried for murder. I can imagine a lawyer looking at a copy of one his cd's and going "well this should be pretty open and shut", at the very least this movie feels like incriminating evidence. Which given all the public controversy that was swirling around at the time, made this movie feel more vital than I might have been before. I agree it's irrelevant any opinion you, I, the victims, or officials might have, cus rules is rules, but it's interesting to watch a film that feels(at least to me) like a pre-emptive self-strike. For that I think it's one of Polanski's best. Though the author of China Town is from my hometown and I really should support that movie, it's "Repulsion" and "Death And The Maiden" the films about paranoia,sex, and violence, which he seems to have a more dynamic grasp of, if it's not for Polanksi's own personal history I would be surprised.