The opening-credit sequence: ocean waves undulating behind a luxury liner's porthole while the camera slowly pulls in and out of the circular frame. The conclusion: Roman Polanski is back, this time with Bitter Moon, a gleefully nasty foray into psychosexual morality -- and abnormality. The Love Boat chartered by voyeurs, it's the maverick director's best, most authoritative film in years.
Polanski structures this dark thriller about grand passions gone amuck as one hysterical story within another. Well-groomed and straight-laced Nigel (Hugh Grant) and wife Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas), an English couple in need of a second honeymoon after seven years of marriage, are en route to the Orient. Nigel soon develops an itch when fellow passenger Oscar (Peter Coyote), a wheelchair-bound, second-rate American novelist with a bombastic streak, recounts his steamy romance with his voluptuous young wife, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), a bombshell given to slinky dancing and wearing tight red dresses a la Jessica Rabbit -- given to them, that is, the few times in the movie she's clothed. "Eternity for me began one fall day in Paris," confides Oscar, who admires Hemingway but is a poor imitation of Henry Miller. Walks in the park, wine in restaurants, dates at carnivals, lovemaking by fireplaces: "We were inseparable by day, insatiable by night," Oscar intones during the extended flashbacks, and Nigel listens as politely as any gentleman can who's cornered on a cruise ship -- until he hears about golden showers. And dildos. And bondage.
Nigel acts scandalized, but as he eyes temptress Mimi it's clear that he's protesting too much, especially since she seems to be sending him signals. The crippled Oscar -- combination pimp, coach and color commentator -- eggs him on, all the while continuing to narrate the erotic odyssey's descent into desperation, staleness, cruelty and, ultimately, love-hate inextricability. Meanwhile, Fiona, aware of Nigel's fascination with his new American friends, warns her husband to be careful. Anything he can do, she warns, she can do better.
Part of the perverse pleasure of Bitter Moon is that the screenplay (written by Polanski and his longtime collaborators Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, and based on Pascal Bruckner's novel, Lunes de Fiel) revels in cliches, intentionally exaggerating stock melodramatic touches to illuminate and send up sexual obsession. A mad, passionate love scene has Oscar climaxing just as a toaster pops up its product. The first flashback introduction to Mimi suggests a goddess posed against a moving background of Parisian streets -- but then reveals that she's merely a commuter on a bus. The script has great tongue-in-cheek fun with lines such as, "We just lived on love and croissants" and "Don't be too hard on a man demolished by a love that was too strong." The killer ending occurs on New Year's Eve.
Grant, who created a similar buttoned-down gentleman to good effect in Sirens, and Scott-Thomas, who co-starred with Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, are enjoyably punctilious. But the movie belongs to Coyote's smutmonger with literary aspirations and Seigner's woman-child with violent mood swings.
Though Polanski at times takes Oscar and Mimi's story more seriously than the film's tone warrants, he's by and large in control -- from confining the action to claustrophobic settings that help provoke confrontations, to filling backgrounds with "frame" motifs (windows, TVs, word processors, billboards), to including a walk-on by Victor Banerjee just to provide a voice that can dismiss Nigel and Fiona's trip to India for "inner serenity" by noting that the country is replete with "flies, smells and beggars."
There's only one question unanswered by this film, a question posed by the director's own history: just how autobiographical is this dramedy about a man maimed by sexual escapades?
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