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Death And The Maiden : Polanski’s Visual Symphony

Just imagine that you are held hostage in an eerie house atop a hill. Both your hands and legs are tied to the chair and only your mouth is open, probably to force you into a confession. In the midst of such tension, you feel like emptying your bladders more out of nervousness than for biological reasons. And you are led to the toilet with your hands still tied behind your back. Will you be able to relieve your pressure? I don’t think so. Dr.Miranda too shrugged in distress, complaining that its invasion of privacy.

Paulina was by his side, but not with him. She was holding a gun to his head and was doubly guarded by her husband who stood at the door of the restroom. Miranda was unable to answer nature’s call under fear psychosis. That’s when Paulina helps him out, its not shown visually though, and starts whistling a slow tune that fills the silence of the rest-room and acts at the neuro level of Miranda. And out of classical conditioning, hope you recall Pavlov’s experiment with his dog, a stream of urine jetts into the pot. This was just one of the many disturbing sequences in the movie. Disturbing, yet necessary and closer to reality than many other movies made on hostage drama.

But why was Miranda held hostage and what brought him to Paulina? Well, the movie begins with Paulina’s husband, Gerardo, escorting Miranda into his house and thanking him for the great help he had been on the night. Gerardo explains to Paulina that his car had broken down and Miranda was kind enough to drop him home. And so, Gerardo invited Miranda to share a drink. While Miranda is still getting familiarized with the house and the surroundings, a deep sense of shock, agony and angst is seen on Paulina’s face. It takes her back in time, when she was an activist and fought against a fascist regime; she was held captive and her body was desecrated by the captivators. All those horror moments and the painful torture that she had endured, comes back to haunt her again. The voice, it was the voice of Miranda or so she feels, who was one amongst the many fascist members who had desensitized her and played with her moral conscience and outraged her modesty.

Paulina’s claims are rubbished by Gerardo, as he is unsure of the identity of the men who tortured his wife while she was held captive. There is no proof or any method of knowing who the real memebers were, and Gerardo wished to give Miranda the benefit of the doubt. But Paulina is pretty adamant that she recognises the voice, she can’t forget the voice; and she is absolutely certain that Miranda was the man in question. Miranda too denies being involved in any such activity meant to crush the movement of the activists or sexually humiliate them.

Gerardo is unable to convince his wife but goes ahead with her instructions of holding Miranda as hostage and force Miranda into a confession. But does Miranda give-up and accept all accusations to save his life? Even if he does, is this what Paulina wants? Wouldn’t this be a pyrrhic victory where she has lost inspite of winning, even if Miranda confesses! What values does truth hold if its not spoken when its needed most! Why is morality used as an instrument of coercion? These are some of the questions that popped in my head.

Women are always held in great respect by most societies, not just because they are genetically capable of reproduction and furthering a clan, but also because they uphold the traditions and carry forward culture/legacy. That could be one of the reasons why in any conflict women are attacked, probably to cause harm to the symbol of civilization. They end-up becoming a soft target and we have seen all through history that apart from swords and bombs, anarchists have used sexual assault to make a violent point. Its the worst kind of revenge possible, most reprehensible. And yet, this deep malice still exists.

And this trauma has been captured very well by Polanski. You feel for Paulina and the pain she has been through stings our heart. Sigourney was believable as Paulina, the rage in her teary-eyes and the stress on her muscles was evident. On the other hand, Kingsley’s restrained perfromance as the doctor who did or did-not wrong Paulina was very well played. He stayed calm and collected all through, almost cold-blooded that you feel he could’ve been amongst the men who wronged Paulina. But at the same time, he also showed timidity and meekness which convinced Gerardo beyond a doubt, that Miranda is being framed. Although the movie involves just 3 characters, much like Piolanski’s earlier work Knife In The Water, they fill the screen with tension, emotion and high drama. Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver are brilliant as Miranda and Paulina. Paulina’s vulnerability, inner fears and scars of the past were beautifully expressed by Sigourney. Felt a bit sorry for Wilson as he did not have the author-backed role, he played second fiddle to Paulina; but was nice as the understanding, sympathetic and loving husband.

Of course, a special mention of the background score must be made. The movie is titled on the music-piece which is fabulous; dark, tense, sometimes hollow, sometimes violent just as Paulina’s forgotten past which comes alive with Dr.Miranda’s visit.

The movie ends in a stark note where there is no revenge taken for past deeds, no retribution and the characters learn to move on in life, where forgiveness does not matter and forgetting seems to be the best way to deal with it.

Indian film-makers have attempted remaking this movie not once but twice, and have failed both times. Surprisingly, both movies released in the same year, 2005; some 11 years after DATM. One of the remakes named Dansh starred Kaykay, Sonali Kulkarni and Aditya Srivastav while the other remake Siskiyaan had Neha Dhupia, Sachin Khedkar and Sonu Sood. Both movies followed the same storyline, but they lost the soul somewhere. The setup was fine, but the treatment lacked the punch.

While Dansh used the social milieu of North-east and the political situation there, Siskiyaan was modelled on the ethnic rioting between Hindu-Muslim. Sonali Kulkarni played the victim in Dansh and Neha Dhupia played that role in Siskiyaan. Both movies got the body right, but lacked the spirit. Somehow, that pain, anguish and aggression was not seen in these movies. That’s where Polanski’s art comes into picture. The earnestness with which Polanski has gone about, the detailing in the script, the lighting and most importantly, the acting. He has extracted superb performances from everyone. Polanski, a genius behind the camera.

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Posted by on March 3, 2010 in hollywood, movie review, movies


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