When director Nicolas Roeg is on his game, there are few contemporary filmmakers who can (or would want to) match his ability to reveal his characters' fears, phobias and descents into brutality and madness. While his grueling new psychological drama "Two Deaths" does boast virtually all of the hallmarks of Roeg's peculiar canon, the pic's tough, bleak material will severely limit B.O. appeal.

When director Nicolas Roeg is on his game, there are few contemporary filmmakers who can (or would want to) match his ability to reveal his characters’ fears, phobias and descents into brutality and madness. While his grueling new psychological drama “Two Deaths” does boast virtually all of the hallmarks of Roeg’s peculiar canon, the pic’s tough, bleak material will severely limit B.O. appeal. With savvy handling there could be modest life on the fest circuit, in discriminating arthouses and on the small screen. The film’s lone marketing upside could come courtesy of favorable comparisons to Peter Greenaway’s 1989 breakaway arthouse hit “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” which “Deaths” resembles in several ways.

Like “Thief,””Deaths” takes place over the course of an elaborate dinner and links conspicuous consumption, fascist politics and abusive relationships in one big, unpleasant feast. And both pics star Michael Gambon as a man whose casual savagery is repelling and grimly fascinating.

But where “Thief” ultimately disappeared into its art direction, “Deaths” works more effectively by retaining its focus on the principal characters and their moral and spiritual disintegration. The effect is closer to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in its ability to plumb the furthest recesses of a broken romantic bond.

Roeg has transplanted Stephen Dobyns’ novel “The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini” from Latin America to 1989 Romania, where the oppressive regime of the despotic Communist strongman Nicolae Ceausescu was expiring in a maelstrom of street-to-street warfare.

This violent collapse is no match for the determination of Dr. Daniel Pavenic (Gambon), a debauched high-society physician who willfully disregards danger to host an annual reunion dinner for a dozen old friends. Only three are hearty, foolish or desperate enough to attend the event, held at his opulent mansion on the outskirts of Bucharest.

His guests are George Bucsan (Patrick Malahide), a timid, repressed journalist; Marius Vernescu (Nickolas Grace), a groveling failure who lives off his wife’s earnings; and Carl Dalakis (Ion Caramitru), whose basic decency and openness is the audience’s window into the twisted passages of the story.

After an innocuous question about a photo of a beautiful young woman, shocker upon shocker is piled on. The young woman, it is revealed, is Pavenic’s housekeeper, Ana (Sonia Braga), whose former beauty now is barely recognizable.

The story’s central conceit is guests’ curiosity about the nature of Pavenic’s relationship with Ana. Slowly, their own lives are pulled into the history.

Roeg’s ability to stitch together seemingly unconnected strands of story and minute visual details once again shines in “Deaths.” In the midst of a particularly harrowing recollection of Pavenic’s torture of Ana’s former lover, Ana shocks the three guests by breaking the mood with a coquettish flick of the wrist, a movement that triggers a past memory in Bucsan, which is seen almost subliminally.

Yet the image indelibly links Bucsan’s despair and loss to the tragic tale unfolding before him. The death of a horse in the war-torn street below his house connects Pavenic to his own sadism decades ago, and that remembered image of cruelty and pastoralism jolts Pavenic back to his current predicament.

Roeg’s unique sensibility and technical proficiency never have been stronger, from his intricate, baroque investigations of Pavenic’s house, courtesy of cinematographer Witold Stok and production designer Don Taylor, to his hand with the actors, all of whom are chillingly effective.

Pic makes good use of material from a one-week shoot in Romania, integrating it well into the otherwise U.K.-lensed footage.

While not every audience’s cup of poison, “Deaths” will connect with filmgoers who relish a stern mix of psychology and politics. For those thirsty for light entertainment, Roeg’s latest will prove “Two Deaths” too many.

Two Deaths

British

Production

A BBC Films production with the participation of British Screen. Produced by Carolyn Montagu, Luc Roeg. Executive producers, Allan Scott, Jonathan Olsberg, Mark Shivas. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Screenplay, Allan Scott, based on the novel "The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini," by Stephen Dobyns.

Crew

Camera (color), Witold Stok; editor, Tony Lawson; music, Hans Zimmer; production design, Don Taylor; art direction, Charmian Adams; set decoration, John Bush; costume design, Elizabeth Waller; sound (Dolby), Jim Greenhorn; associate producer, John Rushton; assistant director, Dermot Boyd; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed at Writers Guild of America Theater, Beverly Hills, Feb. 27, 1995. (In Toronto, Chicago, AFI/L.A. film festivals.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Daniel Pavenic - Michael Gambon
Ana Puscasu - Sonia Braga
George Bucsan - Patrick Malahide
Marius Vernescu - Nickolas Grace
Carl Dalakis - Ion Caramitru
Cinca - John Shrapnel
Ilena - Sevilla Delofski
Leon - Matthew Terdre
Young Ana - Lisa Orgolini
Young Daniel - Niall Refoy
Roberto Costantini - Karl Tessler
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