‘Death and the Maiden’: Looking Back at Roman Polanski’s 1994 Masterpiece

Image via New Line Cinema

Many people consider Rosemary’s Baby to be Roman Polanski’s magnum opus, others cite Chinatown as his best, and I have been caught up in more of these discussions than I care to count. Other films of his such as The Pianist, The Tenant and Frantic also get lobbed into the conversation and the exchange is usually reduced to a pompous contest of cinematic wankery. For my money, it’s impossible to go past his 1994 film, Death and the Maiden, starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley and Stuart Wilson.

Based on an acclaimed stage show by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, the film depicts the intense psychological exchange between three people in an isolated country-house. On a cold, stormy night in an unknown location, a stranger knocks on the door of Paula and Gerardo Escobar’s (Weaver & Wilson) home. The stranger is Dr Roberto Miranda (Kingsley), whose car has broken down nearby. The Escobars invite him in, offering him a meal and a seat beside their fireplace. As the pleasantries transpire, Paula begins to withdraw, starting to suspect that Dr Miranda is in fact the very same man who tortured and raped her 15-years prior. What unfolds is an intense night of confrontation as the characters lock horns; Paula fervid for revenge and Miranda in a desperate plight of innocence.

Death and the Maiden is a masterful film that is as horrific as it is compelling, and despite the entire 103 minutes taking place in the one room, it makes for a profound and thought-provoking experience. As if the subject matter wasn’t dark enough, Polanski creates a production design that transcends the story and places the audience in a vice-like grip. He shot the film on a soundstage, which gives the narrative an unhinged surrealism, and with the lighting design casting grimacing shadows over the screen he presented a film that attacks the audience on multiple levels.

Image via New Line Cinema

Weaver and Kingsley give tour-de-force turns in arguably their greatest performances to date. They play off each other brilliantly – uninhibited – with raw emotion that pulsates with every line. Weaver skilfully balances a sense of distress with rage, which occupies every minute with an unrelenting energy, while Kingsley counter-acts with an equal measure of fear and confusion. With her relentless pursuit of revenge sparring against his insistent pleads of innocence, it is left to Wilson to mediate the intense standoff. At no point in the stalemate does either person appear victorious, and Polanski masterfully lays an ambiguous shroud over the conflict. He does throw in a few teasers, which the audience can decipher however they choose, and it is this ambivalence that makes Death and the Maiden so compelling, where it will frustrate some viewers, and will invigorate others.

Polanski is a polarising filmmaker, on and off the screen, and conversations about his art are often counteracted with views on his personal life. Quite often these views, in turn, distract from the work at hand and it becomes an entirely different discussion about the legitimacy of art – no matter how skilled – against the weight of accusation and notoriety. Polanski’s life of exile and the criminal charges against him have become part of his legacy, and no doubt their impact on his psyche manifests within the work itself. And so it is fascinating that he chose to adapt Death and the Maiden, given its strong themes of deprivation and rape. I watch the film with this in mind and often wonder if it was a reflection of his own inner-demons and, perhaps, an exorcism of sorts?

Nevertheless, Dorfman’s play remains a provocative and stomach-churning immersion, and Polanski’s adaptation translates the context and atmosphere superbly. Death and the Maiden is essential viewing in my opinion and arguably Polanski’s masterpiece.