By Aaron Aradillas
Press Play Contributor
In 1994, Roman Polanski got up off the mat after nearly a decade and a half of uninspired activity. The 1980s saw the troubled filmmaker direct two movies: 1986’s Pirates remains his absolute worst effort (like a lot of big-budget enterprises from the ’80s, it felt like a movie made by committee), while 1988’s jet-lag thriller Frantic starts off great but quickly loses focus. (That might’ve been deliberate.) Then in 1994, both Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden saw Polanski display his trademark command of tone while tackling tricky topics like sexual obsession, revenge and love. It is impossible to view any film directed by Polanski without his sexual assault case casting a shadow over it. (He would plead guilty to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.) Fleeing the country to avoid possibly being railroaded by a publicity-seeking judge, Polanski forever damned his reputation as one of the best directors of his generation. His movies, both those made before and after his scandal, would be viewed through the prism of being made by a man on the run. Starting with Tess and leading up his latest film Carnage, we would scrutinize each film for telltale sings of an admission of guilt — or, more to the point, self-justification. It would seem Polanski at first did his best to avoid making movies that would leave room for this kind scrutiny. But Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden show Polanski both mocking his detractors and confronting them with uneasy questions about what exactly would satisfy their notion of justice. Taken together, the movies show Polanski getting a handle on how feminist rage can be turned into empowerment. It’s as if he has intimate knowledge of how, in some instances, victimization can lead to taking control of one’s life.
Bitter Moon (made in 1992 but not widely seen until 1994) is a strangely romantic sex comedy about the sanctity of marriage. That may seem odd coming from someone as kinky as Polanski, but the movie seems to toy with the audience’s preconceived notions of what they think they know about the filmmaker. Set aboard a cruise ship headed for India during the New Year holiday season, the story is a love-hate quadrangle. Nigel and Fiona (Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas) are supposedly a happily married couple celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary. They are slowly entranced by Oscar and Mimi (Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner), another married couple who seem to get a perverse joy out of displaying their contempt for one another. Oscar, now confined to a wheelchair, is a failed writer living in Paris with the sexually adventurous Mimi acting as his caretaker in a weird variation on a master-slave relationship. We slowly come to realize that that is far from the case.
Polanski’s playfulness is evident from the opening credit sequence, which has us looking through a circular port window in the ship. The sly wit of the image is that it can easily be interpreted as looking through a telescope, the telltale image of voyeurism. The sickest joke in the movie is Coyote’s performance. He gives Oscar just the right touch of bemusement at his own predicament, which lets the viewer off the hook from ever feeling sorry for him. (We actually come to despise him.) The upshot to the performance is that Coyote is playing up the audience’s idea of what they think they know about Roman Polanski. Oscar is not Polanski, but a satiric version of what we think it means to be an artist living in exile in Paris. (In reality, Polanski would love to return to Hollywood. It still remains the best place to find steady work.) This joke is compounded by the casting of Polanski’s real wife as Mimi. We can clearly see what could drive a man like Oscar to become obsessed with her. In extended flashbacks, as Oscar tells his story to Nigel, we see how Oscar and Mimi’s relationship began as an only-in-the-movies tale of mutual attraction. Their attraction quickly turned to blissful obsession that then turned to alienation and cruelty. Sex can seem funny when it doesn’t involve you. Polanski knows this. The sex games they act out showcase that trademark Polanski kink, especially when Oscar puts on a pig’s mask.
In the past Polanski would’ve stopped at the kinkiness, but here he’s getting at something deeper. Bitter Moon suggests that a relationship based on erotic obsession verging on mania is destined to be doomed. Mutual attraction between partners is necessary in any healthy relationship, but it is far from the most important component for a lasting one. From the outside, Oscar and Mimi’s enthusiastic courtship looks gloriously romantic. But with sex being the only thing defining them, it is inevitable one of them will get bored. It turns out Mimi’s love for Oscar is genuine. Playing the role of a struggling artist to the fullest, Oscar is revealed to be a shallow man unworthy of love. The scene where we find out exactly how Oscar came to be confined to a wheelchair has a Looney Tunes-style logic to it. Oscar’s physical punishment is just the beginning of his comeuppance.
Polanski indulges in pop sensuality in ways both ironic and surprising. An early scene has Nigel sitting at the ship’s bar, spotting Mimi as Peggy Lee’s “Fever” plays on the soundtrack. (Like Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, Grant is very good at using his clean-cut exterior to mask his naughty-boy tendencies.) A playful sex montage from early in Oscar and Mimi’s relationship is set to George Michael’s “Faith.” Later, when Oscar is free of Mimi and on the prowl, Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” accompanies him. The climax is set during a storm as the new year approaches. New Year’s is meant to be a time for fresh starts and resolutions. For Nigel and Fiona that means possibly throwing their marriage away as Fiona, hip to Nigel’s growing obsession with Mimi, dances with the devil. The scene is scored to a cover of “Slave to Love,” an ironic nod to 9 1/2 Weeks. Here are both scenes.
The ending of the film may seem like the logical conclusion to Oscar and Mimi’s S&M romance, but look closer and you’ll see it is an act of salvation. Mimi’s obsession with Oscar, and then with getting revenge for Oscar rejecting her, is her undoing. Fiona briefly flirts with obsession but quickly learns how harmful it can be. Made five years before Eyes Wide Shut, Bitter Moon says that a healthy marriage is one where not every whim and fantasy is indulged, and that what Nigel and Fiona need to do is…
Death and the Maiden is a far more complex and disturbing film. It’s a love-hate triangle that powerfully dramatizes the cruel mind games men and women play on one another. Based on Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden takes on the guise of a political statement about the fallout from the toppling of a fascist dictatorship. (The play is set in an unnamed South American country that is clearly meant to be Chile.) In truth, the film is a howl of feminist rage against male dominance and entitlement. And the rage is more than justified; it’s long overdue.
The bulk of the film takes place in a seaside house that feels purposely cut off from the rest of the world. In this house live Paulina and Gerardo Escobar (Sigourney Weaver, Stuart Wilson). When we first see Paulina, she is preparing dinner. The precision of her movements suggest a masculine forcefulness. (Weaver’s wife-beater-ish sleeveless top allows her to show off her magnificently muscular yet feminine arms.) When a nasty storm knocks out the power, she takes her dinner into the closet. This act tips us off to her constantly being on guard.
It is revealed that Paulina had been held captive and tortured for two months during the fascist regime. She is now married and doing her best not to live in the past. Her husband Gerardo is a high-ranking liberal lawyer who has just been appointed by the newly elected president to head the committee responsible for bringing to justice those who killed countless rebels who had a hand in bringing democracy to the country. Paulina is mistrustful of these new male-dominated “transition” committees. (They only plan on prosecuting those who committed murder, not torture.) When her husband returns late after getting a flat in the rain, she is startled by the sound of the voice of the man who gave him a ride. She is convinced the man is the same one who tortured her. She was blindfolded throughout her ordeal, but she claims she knows his voice. Given this incredible once-in-a-lifetime situation, Paulina ties him to a chair and puts him on “trial” for his crimes.
The play of Death and the Maiden is a contraption, a simplistic treatment of the hot-button topic of victims’ rights. It’s Deathtrap for bleeding-heart liberals. But Polanski is not really interested in whether Paulina is justified in seeking revenge. (In his view she is in the right.) Polanski obviously takes a perverse pleasure in telling a story where a woman gets the opportunity to confront the man who assaulted her. But that’s just the hook. It’s not the story. Having not seen the stage version, the question of guilt or innocence was supposedly left up to the audience. Polanski has little patience for such glib ambiguity. He believes there is no ambiguity when it comes to right and wrong. The ambiguity lies in a character’s motivations for doing good or evil. (Remember, it was Polanski, not screenwriter Robert Towne, who insisted that Evelyn Mulwray die and Noah Cross get away at the end of Chinatown. A Holocaust survivor, Polanski is fully aware that evil sometimes goes unpunished in the here and now.)
When Paulina hears the soothing voice of Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley), we know she is absolutely right that he is the man who tortured her. It turns out she doesn’t want revenge or even justice, but to reclaim her femininity by reliving the whole ordeal. The “trial” allows her to relive the most traumatic relationship of her life, as Death and the Maiden becomes nothing short of a showdown between the sexes. She even appoints her “civilized” lawyer husband to be Dr. Miranda’s defense attorney. Why? Because she knows men will always protect one of their own. (In an early scene we see both Gerardo and Dr. Miranda get drunk and indulge in some jocular women-are-irrational-creatures banter that feels like lite Neil LaBute. Gerardo may be an upstanding liberal, but he is still a heterosexual male.)
Polanski stages the many verbal confrontations with such economical precision that, even though we are aware of the movie’s stage origins, it never feels stagy. He uses the claustrophobic nature of a one-room drama to his advantage. He breaks up the action just enough — an argument set outside the house, a trip to the bathroom — that, by the end, we are completely oriented to the layout of the Escobar home. Polanski’s direction rivals his work in the home-invasion scenes of Cul-de-sac or the domestic scenes set in the apartment in Rosemary’s Baby. (The mind boggles at the idea of a director of Polanski’s caliber making a movie in 3D.)
Throughout the movie there are little (and not so little) touches of sexual domination like, say, when Paulina takes off her panties and uses them as a gag. Or when she assists Miranda in the bathroom. Gerardo remains ineffectual. At several key moments when he is given an opportunity to take control of the situation, he freezes. In a way he is only acting to how Paulina has programmed him. Paulina loves her husband but they are not really intimate. When they have sex she seems to purposely check out. She has experienced enough aggression. Or has she? The scene where Paulina tells Gerardo exactly what they did to her while she was held captive plays off our queasy voyeuristic desire to know, too. The key to the scene’s power is how easily it plays like a lover’s confession of past indiscretions. Gerardo claims to be shocked because he didn’t know. He demands to know why Paulina never told him what they did to her. She accuses him of always knowing. After all, he is a crusading lawyer now in charge of bringing war criminals to justice. Then, she says, “There’s a difference between knowing the facts and hearing them from your wife.”
Finally, with Paulina threatening to execute her prisoner at dawn, Dr. Miranda breaks down and confesses his crimes. Kingsley, in a subversive bit of stunt casting, uses his saintly image to shocking effect. (Remember, Death and the Maiden was released a year after he played the pure-hearted Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List.) In a chillingly tender monologue, Miranda admits to falling in love with the power and control he had over Paulina, over everyone left in his care. What gives his words their shivery power is that he is not really offering a confession or justification. He is declaring a twisted form of love. For once in Paulina’s life a man is being honest with her. And she is grateful.
The coda of the movie is a Polanski-style zinger. The movie is bookended by a performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” We see Gerardo and Paulina in the audience. It isn’t until the end that we are shown the big picture. While holding her captive, Dr. Miranda would play Paulina’s favorite piece of music as comfort. It was really just a cruel precursor before he climbed on top of her. Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” became that telltale reminder of an ugly relationship, like when you can’t hear a particular artist or song following a breakup. The final scene shows Paulina now being able to listen to Schubert. The kicker is when she gazes up at a couple sitting in the balcony, and it is revealed to be Dr. Miranda and his wife taking in the same performance. Gerardo remains unaware, but Paulina and Dr. Miranda exchange awkward glances. The scene plays like the real-life occurrence of running into an ex while out on a date. For Polanski, at least Paulina can now enjoy a beautiful piece of music. It’s the little things that keep a marriage going.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.