The Death and the Maiden, directed by Roman Polanski, is one of those rare movie that is more than the sum of its parts. With only one main location, a remote house nearby a cliff, and 3 characters, we get a powerful and tense triangle that keeps us locked in our seats.
The characters are:
- Paulina Escobar, played by Sigourney Weaver.
- Gerardo Escobar, Paulina’s husband, played by Stuart Wilson.
- Dr. Roberto Miranda, played by Ben Kingsley.
In an unnamed south american country, just years out of a dictatorship, Paulina and Gerardo are political activists. On a stormy evening, Gerardo is given a ride home by a neighbour, Dr. Miranda. As she hears her voice, Paulina thinks she recognizes a man who tortured and raped her during the fascist regime. She captures him and attempts to have him reveal his true identity, while her husband does not know who to believe.
In a sense, the structure is kept fairly simple, as we are not jumping from one location to another and discovering new characters everytime. However, the tension is always present. This is because we are always wondering if Dr. Miranda is indeed who he pretends to be or if Paulina is victims of her trauma and imagines the whole thing.
- Paulina prepares diner while listening to the radio. Power outage interrupts the broadcast.
- A stranger’s car arrives, she turns the lights off and gets a gun.
- The stranger is Dr. Miranda. He was only dropping her husband Gerardo, who has a flat tire.
- Paulina and Gerardo argue about his career choice.
- We are shown Paulina’s scars. Dialogues such as “I want to adopt”, “I’ll bring you justice” make clear the idea that she went through traumatic times.
- The car comes back. She gets the gun again. Gerardo recognizes him. Dr. Miranda’s only came back to bring the tire.
- Gerardo now invites him for a drink. Paulina becomes even more edgy. She pretends to be asleep when Gerardo invites him to join them.
- Paulina walks out without being seen and steals Dr. Miranda’s car. Gerardo apologizes as he thinks she ran away because of their previous arguments.
- She drives a few kilometers away and searches inside the car. An audio tape draws her attention.
- Gerardo and Dr. Miranda become friendly and get drunk.
- Paulina pushes the car over the cliff.
- Dr. Miranda falls asleep on the couch.
- She is back a the house. She prepares a cord, smells him, wakes him up and knocks him down.
- She ties him on a chair. He wakes up. She asks him if he remembers, if he recognizes her. He does not.
- Gerardo wakes up. He tries to convince Paulina to drop the gun, she won’t.
- She convinces him that the only way to help Dr. Miranda is to pretend to be his lawyer. Paulina states clearly what “charges” are against him. Dr. Miranda insists he was living in Barcelona at the time of the events. But the phone is out and they cannot call anyone.
- Gerardo tries to free Dr. Miranda. Paulina reacts and prevents him from coming too close to him.
- Paulina does not want to kill him. She wants a confession.
- Paulina tells her husband more about her past. One detail, that her torturer used to quote Nietzsche raises helps Gerardo believe Paulina, since Dr. Miranda had quoted him while they were drinking together.
- Awkward and comic relief bathroom scene.
- Phone rings and surprises everyone. It is the president informing that he is sending 2 policemen to protect them as they heard about death threats following the commitee announcement.
- The clock is now ticking. They have to sort this situation out before the men arrive, even if that means killing Dr. Miranda. This forces him to accept to give a confession. But what should he confess for?
- Paulina tells her husband more about how she got abducted and raped.
- Dr. Miranda writes and video tapes a confession. Paulina gets upset about apparent fake details.
- Dr. Miranda grabs the gun and tries to escape. But power comes back, lights and radio turn back on, which surprises everyone and allows Paulina to get the gun back.
- It is dawn. Gerardo attemps to call Minister in Barcelona. Reception hungs up on him.
- Paulina does not want to wait anymore. She pulls Dr. Miranda out of the house.
- Gerardo attempts another call. He gets the information, Dr. Miranda was indeed in Barcelona.
- Gerardo catches up with Paulina and Dr. Miranda and tells them he is innocent.
- Paulina insists this can be another lie.
- Facing her determination, Dr. Miranda confesses that he was a torturer, in a monologue painful but relieving monologue.
This movie, adapted from a play by Ariel Dorfman takes pleasure in manipulating the audience.
We have 3 characters who constantly lie to each others:
- Gerardo initially lies to his wife about him accepting the president’s offer.
- Paulina lies to her husband about having crashed the car.
- Of course, Dr. Miranda lies about his past.
- Even the Minister in Barcelona lies about Dr. Miranda having spent 3 years in that country.
This movie does a great job of making our mind jump all over to place to try and understand if Dr. Miranda is innocent or not. Since we saw her very edgy earlier, the possibility of Paulina acting out of her mind is very real.
The conclusion of this movie is reached after 1 hour and 7 minutes. This is certainly too short by today’s standards, but that is unfortunate, as I wish we saw more similar movies. Although short, it has the undeniable quality of drawing you completely in, without any loss of tension. And as we see with the acts breakdown above, the story is relatively easy to get a global view of.
What is also interesting is how short the 3rd act is. It starts at 1 hour and 3 minutes, when Paulina forces Dr. Miranda to go out of the house, until the end of his confession, at 1 hour and 10 minutes. That is only 7 minutes.
Could it be that this 3rd act actually starts earlier? Maybe when Dr. Miranda starts the video tape confession or when he gets the gun? I would disagree, as none of those events gets us closer to a resolution, which is what the 3rd act is about.
What this shows us is that respecting hollywood standard’s structure length certainly does not matter as much as giving depth, voice to your character and have a smart story.
the end is a new beginning
she prepares diner while listening to the radio
a stranger's car arrives
argument about his career
she recognizes the voice
she pretends to sleep to avoid saying hello
gerardo and Dr Mirando getting drunk
she wakes him up and knocks him out
do you remember, do you recognize me?
prepare his defense!
want to hear the charges?
she lies to her husband about the car being crashed
he liked to quote nietzsche! nietzsche?
I dont want revenge, I want him to confess
did you live in barcelona or not?
I have to go to the bathroom
phone rings - surprise
we re sending a couple men because of death threats
what do I have to confess to?
what should he confess for?
were you in love with her? past lover discussion upsets gerardo
she tells how she got kidnapped
Dr. Miranda writes and video tapes confessions
tied with wires, not ropes
Dr. Miranda got the gun
electricity comes back up, Paulina gets the gun back
dawn. calling Barcelona
she takes Dr. Miranda out, while Gerardo still tries to reach Barcelona
minister informs Gerardo Dr.Miranda was in Barcelona