Death And Maiden Essay

The Polanski film Death and the Maiden is a wonderful and intelligent
interpretation of Ariel Dorfman’s human rights problem play. Polanski has
produced, in this film, an exceptional piece of direction, in which his own
personal, emotional input is evident. The main theme of the play is an extremely
personal one for both playwright (and scriptwriter) and director. Both Dorfman
and Polanski have had to face and flee the horrors of dictatorship and human
rights violations: Dorfman in Chile, under General Augusto Pinochet, and
Polanski in Poland under the Nazis. But despite this similarity in past
experience, significant differences exist between the original play and the
film. Apart from the specific techniques of lighting and composition, whose
possibilities are greatly widened in the medium of film, we see differences in
both the different emphases and implied viewpoints on the various themes that
the play touches on and, perhaps more importantly, the way the characters are
portrayed. While the old concept of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you
stronger” is present in both the play and the film (particularly in the
characterisation of Paulina), it is much more prevalent in the movie. We can see
Paulina’s strength from the start. As she strides confidently around the house
and violently tears off a piece of chicken, the suggestion that she is unsuited
to the domestic position which she has obviously been forced into by the side
effects of her traumatic experience need not be made any clearer. Although
possessing remarkable strength in both texts, the movie shows a much stronger,
almost completely masculine Paulina. This Paulina has been almost entirely
defeminized by her ordeal, physically, symbolised by the scarred breast and her
desire to “adopt” a child, which also serves as a glimpse of the vulnerable
element of womanhood in her character that still remains. Throughout the bout of
verbal jousting that goes on in the opening scene Paulina is able to hold her
ground much more firmly than she appears to do in the play. In Polanski’s
version of the scene she actually manages to use her domestic role to gain power
in the argument, fiercely flinging the dinner in the bin. Weaver’s powerful
acting conveys the unmistakable tension associated with an incredible amount of
suppressed anger. It is not until the following scenes, when she is finally
confronted with the cause of that anger, however, that we see its full magnitude
and destructive potential. In the surreal, dim lighting of her bedroom Paulina
is shaken by a strangely disturbing laugh upon recognising Roberto Miranda’s
voice as that of her tormentor. This moment sees the birth or manifestation of
another facet of Paulina’s character, the part of Paulina’s mind that
fantasized about doing to her torturers what they had done to her. This is the
unbelievably unreasonable Paulina; she is a Fury, a mythical deity, the
embodiment of vengeance, unsusceptible to male logic or opportunistic, careerist
rationalisation. Polanski makes Paulina throw the car over the cliff-edge. In
doing this she is not only destroying a phallic symbol, and thus undermining
Roberto’s sexuality and any claims he has on sexual dominance or superiority,
she is destroying a perfect symbol of the male thirst for power and control, and
the pragmatic logic to which her need for revenge has been sacrificed, into the
infinite, chaotic abyss that defies all these principles, and unquestionably
swallows it up. In doing this she breaks the railing, civilized society has
created to guard itself from that chaos, allowing those forces of suppressed
rage to escape. Polanski’s Paulina re-enters the house, a different person.

Illuminated by typically horror-movie-style lighting. Her sharply focused face
? lit by an almost electric blue with harsh shadows cast across it,
highlighting her features ? contrasts strongly against the blurry background.

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Having bound Roberto, she is physically empowered by the gun (P: “…as soon
as I drop the gun all discussion will cease…you’ll use your strength to win
the argument…”) to act aggressively. The gun is another phallic symbol;
hence much of this aggressive behaviour takes on a sexual quality. Unlike
Dorfman’s play, Polanski does not try to make us accept, without a struggle,
the simple truth that to victimize our tormentors is to sink to their level. We
get the general feeling that Polanski is much more sympathetic to Paulina and
the type of justice her injuries call out for. In Polanski’s film adaptation,
far from being driven by blind rage, Paulina is the only character that takes
responsibility for her own actions, and cares little for the self-interested
considerations of consequences. She has already faced the worst consequences
possible, and seems, by that experience, to have acquired a terrifying
emancipation from the restraints they can impose. While Dorfman gives
Gerardo’s logical pragmatism some credence, casting him as the voice of
reason, for Polanski he stands for the blissfully unaware certainty of
principles untested by experience. Gerardo’s clichéd maxims are the
luxuries of a man who has never faced the reality of his enemy’s power.

However, the film is not a justification of Paulina’s actions, a simple
revenge fantasy. Despite the satisfaction of Paulina’s brand of justice, she
can’t, when faced with Roberto’s honest confession and the fact that he too
is human and has his own reasons for doing what he did, push herself to kill
him. In fact I am not sure that killing him was her intention when she lead him
to the cliff, she understood the almost unbearably painful truth when she first
decided that “…no revenge [could] satisfy [her]…” For all the rage
contained in the film (significantly more than the play), and its portrayal of
Paulina, there is a certain helplessness to the film, and a disturbing truth in
its unresolved ending. One might argue that Polanski ? in making Roberto give
an overall much more genuine confession at the end of the film than Dorfman
provides in the play ? is falling into the Hollywood trap of offering a simple
resolution to its many moral conflicts and thus making it accessible to a wider
audience. I believe this circumstance serves a very important purpose,
emphasized by its juxtaposition with the very last scene. It underlines this
important impotence in the film’s ending: the fact that despite her having
faced her demons Paulina has been permanently changed by her ordeal. And
although she may have “…reclaimed [her] Schubert…” in that she can now
sit in a concert hall and listen to the music, the music will never be able to
tell her the same things again. And even if Roberto is not there in person (as
he is in the final scene) he will always exist as a vague presence, a”phantasmagorical” shadow on her soul.


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