|Bitter Moon |
New Line Home Entertainment ($19.95)
The Academy Award success of The Pianist probably served to remind many people of the existence of Roman Polanski the filmmaker, not the bad joke. And for a brief moment the tragic circumstances of his early life were allowed to overshadow the questionable moral decisions of his later notorious escapades. Regardless of whether his decades-late award for Best Director was for all the wrong reasons (we all know Oscar’s fondness for an uplifting Holocaust movie) or all the right ones (everyone seemed to agree the film actually deserved it), if it gets audiences watching and thinking about the films again, I can’t rightly complain. Fortunately, with the DVD release of The Tenant (1976), Death and the Maiden (1994), and one of his most personal and neglected films, Bitter Moon (1992) the time is ripe for the curious to become acquainted with some of Polanski’s forgotten chapters.
Even for those who prefer the earlier, more disreputable Polanski, Bitter Moon’s frank confrontation with the director’s reputation as a pervert and self-image as an artist may come as something of a shock. Like all of his recent films, the screenplay is adapted into English from a non-English source, in this case a French novel by Pascal Bruckner. The film tells the parallel stories of two married couples whose destinies become entangled on a holiday cruise to Istanbul: classic stiff Brits Nigel and Fiona (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas), both feeling the seven-year itch, and a parapalegic American, Oscar (Peter Coyote), married to the younger French Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner). What begins as Nigel’s bored and helpless flirtation with Mimi quickly escalates into something both stranger and more serious as Oscar insists on telling Nigel the sordid story of his long-term affair with Mimi, prompting a series of Parisian flashbacks that form the main body of the film. Though once deeply in love and sexually blissful, Oscar explains, they are now bonded only by the mutual contempt born of the many terrible cruelties they have inflicted upon each other, which he recounts in all their shocking details. In his present crippled state, all that remains for Oscar is his self-loathing and the voyeuristic thrill he gets by watching Mimi’s affairs with other men. This is where Nigel gradually begins to see himself fitting into their story—only that’s not quite the way things turn out.
A frustrated writer himself, Oscar’s prose is at once hilariously riddled with clichés and extremely effective, much like Polanski’s direction, which puts a tacky Vangelis score and some phony-looking sets to fine use. Sadomasochism and black humor have, of course, always been key components of his work, but they’ve never quite bubbled over into the realms of sheer disbelief that Bitter Moon often reaches, perhaps because Polanski has never made a film as blatantly autobiographical as this one. Coyote’s Oscar is a womanizing American expatriate living in Paris and failing as an artist, much like Polanski following Pirates (1986) and Frantic (1988). As Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in one of the few unguardedly positive reviews it received upon its release, the film brings together all three countries Polanski has called home since leaving Poland: England, America, and France. Oscar’s wife is also played by Polanski’s own wife since 1986, Seigner, who for some reason—perhaps because she mostly appears in her husband’s films and is not a traditional beauty—has developed the reputation of being a spectacularly bad actress. However, she’s probably the strongest (and certainly most sympathetic) element among the fine cast, able to convey the “childlike innocence mixed with sexual maturity” that Oscar ascribes to her. More likely, critics who trashed the film were responding to its perceived perversity and soft-core aspects—especially one scene in which Mimi dribbles milk over her breasts and Oscar licks it off—which are in fact played more for laughs than for eroticism. When something truly pornographic happens, like an instance of urophilia, Polanski keeps it entirely offscreen and present only through Oscar’s narration, forcing the viewers to provide their own imaginary pornography and proving that Polanski is entirely aware of his audience’s complicity.
Despite its humorous, occasionally mocking, even borderline campy elements, Polanski’s expert mise-en-scène and natural gift for airtight structuring betray the fact that Bitter Moon is an essentially serious enterprise. Each successive flashback provides a discrete chapter of the past and returns to the present at precisely the right moment. Structured rather like many classic film noirs, with the final revelation placed within the framing narrative and coming after the backstory has been exhausted, the film inaugurates the emerging classicism in Polanski’s recent work. A knife thrown into a floorboard during a sexual game rhymes with a needle that eventually delivers the crippled Oscar his medicine, while a hilarious backward-zoom of Oscar and Mimi’s wedding delays the revelation of Oscar in his wheelchair in a visual joke worthy of Kubrick. In fact, as a cautionary tale about the fragility of marriage, Bitter Moon is something of a precursor to Eyes Wide Shut. Both films make use of highly charged sexual environment not out of prurience but to study its effects on seemingly stable couples. It’s a sign of the depth of Polanki’s deeply disturbing insights that Kubrick comes off looking like the more optimistic one.