Torturess Viewing

27 Aug 2013: Death and the Maiden (DVD, 1994, Roman Polanski)

Taking place almost entirely within a single small set and revolving around rape, beatings and forced captivities both past and present, one could call this a torture chamber drama, though as opposed to some somewhat similarly delineated violent horror films this one provokes a great deal of ambiguity and moral quandary. Maybe because Polanski’s an actor first the common thread throughout his distinctive body of work is less visual or strictly cinematic than it is thematic, rooted in a dramatic tension of uncertainty that feels uniquely his own. Showy compositions or editing decisions are not the point here – each element is employed effectively to heighten the mood, so for instance takes tend to be long to allow each performer to convince us of his or her sincerity, insanity or unscrupulousness, and framings (near-exclusively centered on people) employ depth of field or telephoto according to what and whom needs to be shown. For nearly the entire duration of the film – perhaps even including the end, arguably – we are never really sure who is certain or telling the truth about particular horrible deeds involving at least one of the characters that took place decades ago, and this invites obvious debates about justice and retribution without force-feeding any determinate conclusions.

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