Ships that pass in the night

Twenty-four hours can be a long time in film-making: Sheila Johnston on the compressed pleasures of Polanski's Death and the Maiden and Linklater's Before Sunrise
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The cinema is not, by nature, a miniaturist medium: why, given the splash of the big-screen image, and film's capacity to make giant leaps in space and time, would a director confine himself to a small canvas? Sometimes, though, the discipline pays dividends: in two new films, a tiny cast and action that unfolds in a single night yield impressive results - and, in the case of Death and the Maiden (18), Roman Polanski's best work in years.

It is a dark and stormy night. In her remote weekend cottage Sigourney Weaver awaits her husband, a lawyer newly appointed to lead an inquest into human rights violations; we are in an unnamed Latin American country as it emerges, blinking and reeling, from a long military dictatorship. When the husband turns up, he is accompanied by a stranger (Ben Kingsley) who, Weaver becomes convinced, is the man who once repeatedly tortured and raped her. She attacks him, and threatens him with a gun: unless he confesses, he will die that night. Her incredulous husband (Stuart Wilson) finds himself cast, in a savage and ironic parody of his public commission, as the defence attorney.

This film's liability is the script: though substantially rewritten by Ariel Dorfman (with Rafael Yglesias) from his own play, it still at times sounds horribly stilted and theatrical. "Let's dream of happiness my sweet girl, my bride, my saviour": does anyone really talk like this? The most effective bits are the purely physical ones, the scenes which show, for example, how much time and brute force is required for a woman - even a strong and sinewy one - to heave a car over a cliff, or knock a man unconscious and tie him to a chair.

The tight, closed space is made constantly dynamic and interesting with edgy camera movements and striking framings. The long opening shot is pure Polanski: the camera dollies towards the cottage, observing Weaver through the kitchen window, prowling along the wall to keep her in its sights as she passes to another room. A woman moving through her home, nervous and alone: we have seen this before in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby.

The director has retained his eye for grotesque and slightly threatening details (who else would film a tender moment between Weaver and Wilson on a bed next to a half-chewed chicken drumstick?). The very preparation of a simple supper, the chicken hacked at in brusque close-up, the salad grabbed by the scruff of its neck and dumped on a plate, is filmed as an act of violence. The furled loop of rope on the porch wall looks like a noose.

The film is notionally a chamber piece for three players but, as the title suggests, it's more interested in the terrible bond between victim and tormenter than in the troubled relationship between husband and wife. Wilson can't be faulted in the unflashy role of the husband, but he's handicapped by a pair of nerdy glasses and the fact that he doesn't have the iconic familiarity of his two far better-known co-stars. You can see why Polanski would be drawn to the perverse relationship rather than the merely neurotic one.

This is underlined by Death's intense, slightly fetishistic poster, which has Weaver brandishing a gun, locked with Kingsley in a tight, almost erotic, clinch (a posed shot, incidentally: in the film, her white see- through halter-necked top is covered by a blue jacket in these scenes). There's a sexual undercurrent, too, in the way the dialogue dwells on the details of the torture and, especially, the rape; and in the way Weaver gags Kingsley by stuffing her knickers into his mouth and holds his penis while he urinates - both details there in the play, but in each case Polanski embellishes them slyly.

The most significant departure from the text comes at the end. The play extracts a small amount of dramatic mileage from the possibility of the visitor's innocence - although a giant clue involving his fondness for Nietzsche is dropped in at a very early stage, the matter is left shrouded in ambiguity. The film irons out any doubt.

Kingsley's stark clifftop confession, one of the film's few exteriors, is very oddly lit - some of the close-ups look suspiciously like process shots - although this doesn't matter; on the contrary, it adds to the unreal, spooky feel. There's particular impact, too, from the casting of Kingsley, an actor who can play good (Gandhi, Schindler's List) and nasty (Bugsy) with the same fierce intensity. On one level, the text is a measured reflection on the fragility of democracy and the difficulty of healing a country and people that have lived for years in terror. But Polanski ends by ushering us into the presence of pure evil and, at the end of Kingsley's remarkable, chilling monologue, the camera cranes over the cliff to stare into the abyss.

Before Sunrise (15) is a risky but, on the whole, successful departure for Richard Linklater after two films, Slacker and Dazed and Confused, with big, baggy ensemble casts. It sticks with two characters (although they encounter a steady stream of flaky extras): a young American, Ethan Hawke, and a Frenchwoman, Julie Delpy, who meet on a train and, on the spur of the moment, decide to hang out together in Vienna for a few hours before his flight home the following morning.

Like Linklater's other films, it consists, essentially, of inconsequential but diverting chat of cabbages and kings: a cocktail of strange-but-true facts and wild surmisings. We hear of a champion swimmer who shaves his arms and legs to gain speed; of what goes on at a Quaker wedding; of how, as men age, they become less able to hear high-pitched sounds while women lose out on lower-pitched ones, "nature's way of allowing couples to grow old together without killing each other". Auden's poem "As I Walked Out One Evening" puts in an appearance; a bestseller after his contribution to Four Weddings and a Funeral, he's becoming the sine qua non of romantic comedy. By daybreak, they're in love.

A conversation piece, then (Linklater is certainly no visual stylist; many scenes are flatly filmed, which may account for the occasional sense of longueurs). But one of the sweetest moments is speechless: visiting a record store, Delpy drags Hawke into a booth to listen to a maudlin song by Kath Bloom. His face is a picture as he struggles to maintain a semblance of polite appreciation and as both of them, suddenly embarrassed by their close physical proximity, steal furtive sideward glances while trying not to catch the other's eye. Another long scene in a tram is shot in a single, full-on close-up which lasts at least five minutes. It's a huge vote of confidence in the actors, who respond magnificently.

It is a staple of romantic comedy to have two twin souls in search of each other uniting happily ever after in the final reel: a clich as seen in Sleepless in Seattle, Four Weddings, Only You and Love Affair (the forthcoming Beatty-Bening remake of An Affair to Remember) to take but four recent examples. Before Sunrise takes off in the opposite direction: its couple meets in Scene One, and the film builds up to their parting. In structure, though not in tone, it more closely resembles a melodrama like Brief Encounter. It sends up the genre's stock belief in destiny too, in the daft figure of a fortune-teller who "reads" a string of vague generalities from Delpy's palm. "Don't forget: you are stardust," she adds as her parting shot with a mincing little dance.

Fate - or its absence - is a favourite theme of Linklater's: in the first scene of his first film, he appeared in a cameo role as a philosophical cab passenger spinning the theory that, like Dorothy picking which path to go down in The Wizard of Oz, we face in our lives a series of bifurcating choices which gradually close down our options. "We're trapped in one reality," his character says, lightly regretting all the parallel universes that might have been.

That's the sceptical, faintly bittersweet conclusion of the new film: the ideal relationship is one that hasn't been consolidated yet - in a sharp twist, it's the bickering between a long-married couple which brings the characters together. Auden writes: "Oh let not time deceive you, you cannot conquer time". Here, time magically does seem to stop for a perfect evanescent moment because their future - whether they'll meet again - hangs in the balance.

n Both films open tomorrow