Roeg drags us into a nightmare of sophisticated sadomasochism – and we don’t object
Nicholas Roeg’s new film opens with images of disconnected body parts – a man’s leg washed by an unseen female attendant, a fish ripped open by a cook’s hands. The leg washing is particularly unsettling – we can’t tell whether its owner is dead or alive. This sense of the mystery of the body runs throughout Two Deaths – and appropriately, given the film’s setting in Romania, 1989, when the Ceaucescu regime is undergoing violent collapse. In this film, the body is an analogue for the house, which in turn symbolizes the country. All are ultimately defenseless targets, threatened by soldiers and police “outside” and by their own internal drive for self-destruction.
On the eve of the revolution, four old friends meet at the mansion of Dr. Daniel Pavenic (Michael Gambon) for their annual reunion. His housekeeper Ana (Sonia Braga) is a puzzling fifth presence, moving in and out of rooms without speaking, appearing suddenly from a dark corner. Pavenic’s friends, like himself, are bourgeois professionals, and all four men describe in detail their tortured relationships with women. The kindly Carl (Ion Caramitru) is endlessly cuckolded and then deserted by his wife; nervous hysteric George (Patrick Malahide) seems to be tormented by the death of his wife; masochistic Marius (Nickolas Grace) hires prostitutes to whip and piss on him. Pavenic, a ruthless womanizer in his youth, has the strangest story to tell. Years before, he fell desperately in love with Ana – “I wanted to devour her,” he says. In a series of flashbacks, we see him stalking her, trying to kill her fiancé, and finally striking a lethal bargain in which she agrees to become his housekeeper if he will care for her paralyzed fiancé.
Roeg shows us in sickening close-up the details of this agreement – Pavenic’s degradation and rape of the unwilling Ana, her eventual masochistic submission, their mutual destruction of a son (“the fetus,” he calls it). Pavenic is a decadent aesthete whose desires dominant his life: “I want to experience everything that people call sexual,” he says. “She filled me – she filled my brain with her own image. I had to drive her out.” He “drives her out” by transforming their relationship into an endless series of sadomasochistic rituals. Pressing on these disturbing revelations is the chaos outside that moves increasingly closer. Pavenic’s cook is killed, a young woman whose face is ripped open by bullets is brought to him for help, and Pavenic and his guests are assaulted by student-soldiers who insist someone is shooting at them from the top of his house.
Two Deaths recalls the dark landscapes of Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (but without Schrader’s extreme Calvinist self-loathing). Not surprisingly, Roeg’s film inhabits, brilliantly, the same paranoid space as his other work, all the way back to 1970’s Performance, with the addition here of a degree of physical gore rarely seen outside horror movies. Pavenic’s party triggers a successive stripping away of the protections of mind and body, as the characters are forced to come to grips with the unsettling hidden truths of their lives. Marius speaks for the filmmaker when, justifying his patronage of a whore who degrades him, he says simply, “I know who I am.” In Roeg’s view, our desires, however perverse or anti-social, are the only thing that defines us, and even they don’t last.