June 15, 2007

Death And The Maiden (Polanski, 1994)


Death and the Maiden functions ostensibly as a pure thriller, an exercise in sustained tension, masterfully orchestrated and compulsively watchable. The performances from Weaver, Kingsley and Wilson are altogether superb and evenly matched, and Polanski’s direction is inspired. Polanski exploits the claustrophobic nature of the source material to the utmost, staging the action in such a way as to communicate character psychology through spatial orientation within the frame.


Yet, for all its formal concision, and though the setup (three characters, one house, a single night) implies a certain inherent simplicity, the film is simultaneously a fluent, coherent discussion of subjects ranging from political repression and the limitations of justice to sexual empowerment. The brilliance of the film lies in Polanski’s ability to sustain a complex and ubiquitous thematic density that subsists beneath the narrative, without ever sacrificing the film's more basal power to enthrall.


To that effect, ultimately what fascinates most about this (quite literally) dark, exceedingly taut chamber drama, a minor masterpiece, is its psychological component. Its desire to unmask and observe an evil (embodied with nuance and disturbing ambivalence by Kingsley) that horrifies not because it is absolute, but because it is human, and perversely comprehensible.

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