After Roman Polanski's last film as director, a halfhearted, soddenly wistful attempt at a romantic thriller called Frantic, his new film Bitter Moon is most encouraging, because it's heartless and nasty. Polanski will probably never recapture the innovative subtleties of his early works, like Knife in the Water and Cul-De-Sac. He'll probably never even regain the gleeful punch of his mainstream breakthrough Rosemary's Baby. But after the dull, PBS-style competence of Tess and the flat-out cheesiness of Pirates and Frantic, Bitter Moon brings him closer to his bad-boy roots than I would have thought likely.
From the standpoint of plot and theme, Bitter Moon isn't too different from something you might find on late-night premium cable, one of those "erotic thrillers" that is usually neither very erotic nor very thrilling. It's a psychodrama involving two married couples who become acquainted on a sea voyage from Europe to Istanbul. Oscar (Peter Coyote), a wheelchair-bound American expatriate and frustrated novelist, is married to Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), a Parisian bombshell many years his junior. Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) are uptight Brits who are celebrating seven staid years of marriage.
As with Frantic, Seigner--who's married to Polanksi--is the object of the camera's adoration. But this time, at least, that makes some sense in the story. Mimi is the linchpin of the plot--the action grows out of the other three characters' fixation with her.
Nigel gets a look at her dancing (to Peggy Lee's "Fever") in the ship's bar, and is immediately seized with the proverbial itch. So he allows the repulsively avid Oscar to tell him--in detail painful to Nigel's English soul--the twisted history of his relationship with Mimi. Fiona's no fool; she knows what the attraction in these bull sessions is for Nigel, and she's not itch-free herself.
The ship story is really a frame for the main action, which is Oscar's narrative, told in long, rambling flashbacks. But it's an indispensible frame, for two reasons. First, it supplies Polanski with an on-screen audience to torment. Grant's Nigel is a shuddering wreck of ravaged propriety as he listens, unable to break away, to Oscar's croaking accounts of the fairly unoriginal sex games in which he and Mimi engaged. There's a riotous stereotypical gag on the English when, after listening to maybe 20 minutes of Oscar's adventures, Nigel at last can't take it any more and apologetically mutters, "Steady on, old boy."
Second, allowing Oscar to narrate his story, as it descends from conventional meet-cute romance to roiling sensuality to sexual mind games to the threat of violence, frees Polanski to indulge himself--not in sex, but in the baroque tone and pace of the storytelling. (The script, from Pascal Bruckner's novel Lunes de Fiel, is by Polanski and his usual colloborator Gerard Brach, with John Brownjohn.) Making Oscar a Hemingway/Henry Miller wanna-be turns the Paris action from an erotic thriller into a parody of erotic thrillers.
Coyote at last gets a star turn worthy of him. Part of his triumph is in how expertly he shades Oscar from a craggy American stud into a grinning, decrepit monster, and finally into a pitiable victim. The other half is in how he holds our empathy through each stage. Seigner, who has agreeably fleshed out both as a beauty and as an actress since her waif act in Frantic, shades her performance almost equally well.
As for Grant, the current flavor of the month, he gets less to do here than he does in Four Weddings and a Funeral (though more than he gets to do in Sirens). He and Scott Thomas (another Four Weddings alumnus), whose role is even more slight, are nonetheless in good form. They go through their inhibited-Brit paces very amusingly; the roles are preconceived.
Bitter Moon is being touted as erotica, but while the film is often erotic, it isn't really aphrodisiacal, and isn't meant to be. Polanski cunningly makes every turn-on backfire. He keeps punishing the characters for their desire for sexual adventure, and in the terms set up by the film, most of the punishments aren't unjust.
If Polanski weren't in a playful, self-mocking mood here, Bitter Moon wouldn't be nearly so entertaining, because it's full of dusty ideas. What the film is trying to communicate, oddly enough, seems to involve children. Oscar and Mimi abort a child, the abortion leaves her barren, and this more than anything is what seals their fates. On the ship, Nigel and Fiona meet a friendly Sikh widower (Victor Banerjee) who tells them that children are a better marital therapy than any trip to India. The morning after the horror of their New Year's celebration with Oscar and Mimi, as they cling to each other on the deck, the Sikh's little daughter wishes Nigel and Fiona a happy New Year.
In other words, the film boils down to a cautionary moral: Don't count on sex; have a kid instead. Straight sex will end up boring you, and so, eventually, will the kinky stuff (We got greedy, baby," Oscar laments to Mimi at the film's climax). Child rearing, the film seems to say, is your best bet for making a marriage last. But this triteness doesn't matter too much, because Polanski keeps showing a smirk, letting us know that, at some level, Bitter Moon is a put-on. All the same, his mastery of deceptively leisurely pacing makes the resolution of both the Paris story and the frame story surprisingly harrowing. Not just any director could keep this thematically leaky plot afloat through so long a cruise, and keep us so grippingly entertained for the whole trip.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.