Owen Gleiberman
February 03, 1995 AT 05:00 AM EST

Even if you’ve never seen Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden on stage, it’s obvious from Roman Polanski’s riveting new movie version that the material was conceived for the theater. Dorfman’s dialogue doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s stiff and calibrated, a series of high declamatory zingers designed to advance his outrageous story line bit by overdeliberate bit. And there’s no getting around the fact that the story is a voyeuristic audience-teasing stunt. In an unnamed South American country, Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), who was subjected to an extended period of torture and rape by a now-deposed dictatorial regime, suddenly finds herself in close quarters — i.e., her own home — with the man she’s certain was her chief abuser. Provided with this one-in-a-million opportunity for payback, she ties him to a chair with duct tape and a lamp cord, stuffs her panties in his mouth, and subjects him to her own obsessive agenda of retribution.

With its wildly contrived table-turning setup, its emotional hair-triggers of sex, terror, and revenge, Death and the Maiden could almost be a lurid civics-class remake of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. Many critics have interpreted it as a glib ”ethical” problem drama — does a torture victim have the right to become a torturer herself? — and if that’s all it amounted to, it would be little more than a piece of high-flown exploitation. The movie, though, is something richer and scarier, with queasy psychosexual undertones. Set in a lonely seacoast house that, in its claustrophobic way, recalls the director’s absurdist tragedy Cul-de-Sac (1966),Death and the Maiden is a true Polanski movie now, a sadomasochistic love story that locks torturer and victim together in a chillingly intimate spiritual embrace.

<p. At the beginning, Paulina's husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), is appointed head of a commission to look into accusations of torture under the old regime. Paulina thinks the commission is a whitewash — only abuses resulting in death will be investigated, denying victims like herself justice — but fate intervenes when Gerardo accepts a ride home from a stranger, Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), a local physician who seems the model of suave middle-class decorum. Paulina, who was blindfolded during her captivity, doesn't recognize him, at least not by sight. Standing in the bathroom, though, she hears those guarded, nasal tones again, and her face hardens in fear and revelation. The movie tries to sprinkle a few seeds of doubt about Miranda's identity (and Paulina's sanity). But as soon as we see that look on Weaver's face, it's clear that Paulina is operating out of a sureness, a dark knowledge, that can't just be hallucinatory.

The driving point of mystery in Death and the Maiden isn’t whether Miranda is the monster of Paulina’s nightmares. It’s whether he’ll admit it — and if he does, what, exactly, he’ll reveal. Polanski builds the entire movie around our sensationalistic fascination with the details of what Paulina endured. As she attempts to make Miranda confess, it begins to dawn on us, with a kind of cold horror, that she wants to do nothing less than relive the experience, and to do so with the one man who can reflect it back to her. She wants to look Miranda in the eye as he shares his crimes. Weaver, letting loose the full power of her patrician rage, seems controlled and possessed at the same time; her Paulina is an avenging angel in thrall to demons. Working within the cloistered setting, Polanski creates the thrust and excitement of a thriller, though a thriller fueled less by ”action” than by its eroticized mood of fear and loathing.

Miranda, who raped Paulina repeatedly, whispering ugly fantasies in her ear, is the man who took her humanity, and the one who can give it back now. Kingsley, his voice a low, gravelly whine that betrays hints of strained virility, gives an amazing performance, unveiling Miranda layer by layer. He starts out as a wimpy, earnest liar, cloaking his denials in banal indignation, and then reveals his manipulativeness and rage. Finally, kneeling at dawn before the rocky cliffs, he pours out the truth — but what we hear isn’t a litany of horrors so much as a rapt testament, the shockingly tender-eyed confession of an ordinary man who ”fell in love” with power, with flesh, with the dark siren song of his own id. Death and the Maiden doesn’t always escape its contraption origins, but it ends with one of the most honest-and poetic-reckonings of human evil in modern movies. It’s Polanski braying at his own bitter moon.

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