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Stylish 'Deaths' Full of Unrelenting Cruelty


Nicolas Roeg's "Two Deaths" is one of those lamentable films in which the audience is subjected to a couple of hours of displays of unrelieved cruelty and nastiness in the name of revealing some larger truth about human nature that's actually pretty self-evident in the first place.

Currently receiving an American Cinematheque retrospective, Roeg is always a stylish, distinctive director who can be highly entertaining--as with "Don't Look Now," which screens Saturday at 7 p.m. at Raleigh Studio. But he can also be repellent and pretentious, as he is with "Track 29," notably absent from the Cinematheque's retrospective, and with this film.

It is the peculiar fate of the very fine actor Michael Gambon to preside thuggishly over a dinner party just as much a protracted exercise in humiliation as the one he hosted in Peter Greenaway's notorious and rather similar 1989 "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover."

As before, Gambon plays a sadistic bully with a passion for destroying one and all, this time a rich, politically well-connected Bucharest doctor who arrogantly holds an annual reunion with some of his classmates despite the 1989 Romanian Revolution raging outside his superb Art Nouveau-cum-Deco mansion.

In this tremendously theatrical and heavily symbolic adaptation of Stephen Dobyns' "Two Deaths of Sen~ora Puccini," Gambon's doctor, who prides himself on his candor, emerges as a particularly vile example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

As a medical student, he falls in love instantly and obsessively with another student, who resists his forceful advances but whom fate places in his thrall. For years, therefore, this beautiful woman (Sonia Braga, no less) has served as both his housekeeper and his sex slave.

Yet the doctor's power, like that of Nicolae Ceausescu himself, starts to crumble. He's forced to admit that he has everything but that he also has nothing because he can never have his housekeeper's love. (In one especially gruesome scene, we're shown the fetus of a baby boy, shortly to die, having been delivered of the housekeeper in a late-term forced abortion performed by the doctor.)

Alas, Roeg dealt with such compulsive passions far more effectively in his 1980 "Bad Timing--A Sensual Obsession" (which screens June 15 at 7 p.m. at Raleigh). Like all Roeg films, "Two Deaths" has a great look to it, having been photographed in rich, muted hues by Witold Stok largely amid elegant interiors designed by Don Taylor. It also has a great, moody Hans Zimmer score.

But "Two Deaths" is hardly the first Roeg picture that's all dressed up only to go places overly familiar and relentlessly unpleasant without engaging us in its people or yielding fresh understanding or evoking emotion beyond disgust, which might have made the trip worth the effort.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, including a graphic abortion scene, nudity, sexuality and related dialogue. Times guidelines: The film is a protracted exercise in cruelty and humiliation and is entirely unsuitable for children even if accompanied by adults.


'Two Deaths'

Michael Gambon: Daniel Pavenic

Sonia Braga: Ana Puscasu

Nickolas Grace: Marius Vernescu

A Castle Hill release of a BBC Films production with the participation of British Screen. Director Nicolas Roeg. Producers Carolyn Montagu, Luc Roeg. Executive producers Allan Scott, Jonathan Olsberg, Mark Shivas. Screenplay by Scott from Stephen Dobyns' novel "Two Deaths of Sen~ora Puccini." Cinematographer Witold Stok. Editor Tony Lawson. Costumes Elizabeth Waller. Music Hans Zimmer. Production designer Don Taylor. Art director Charmian Adams. Set dresser John Bush. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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