I don't know you at all, Nigel, but somehow I have the feeling that you're exactly the listener that I've been looking for. I hope you'll find my story interesting…
We all know about Roman Polanski's troubled personal life. Before Polanski was even in his teens, his mother died in a Nazi concentration camp in his native Poland. More well-known is the fate of his wife, Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant when she was killed in the Manson family slayings, her unborn child ripped from her womb. In 1979, Polanski had to flee the United States after being convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Despite these personal hardships, Polanski has undoubtedly had a successful career and has made lasting contributions to American cinema, such as the unforgettable Chinatown, his memorable adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, or his recent Oscar-winning success, The Pianist. Unfortunately for audiences, however, Polanski has a habit of every so often using his films as a release for his own inner demons and frustrations. It is at times like these, such as when he made Bitter Moon in 1992, that one wishes he would find a shrink to speak with, rather than pushing his bizarre fantasies on the rest of us.
Facts of the Case
Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) have reached the seven-year mark in their marriage, and are taking a cruise to India to rekindle their flames. The trip continues without incident until they meet Oscar (Peter Coyote) and Mimi (Polanski's real-life wife Emanuelle Seigner). Wheelchair-bound Oscar is an American would-be novelist attempting to live out everyone's favorite clichés about writers in Paris; he's never published anything, but the movie helpfully informs us that he comes from a wealthy family and can afford to be idle. Mimi is a waitress and aspiring dancer, apparently of the exotic variety, if the laughable sample of her talents that we get is any indication.
Oscar, seeing that Nigel has noticed Mimi's beauty (it's not hard—she wears clothing so tight it's almost a tattoo), takes a liking to him. He begins to tell Nigel the sad tale of his life: how he is an unpublished writer living out his clichéd fantasies in Paris in the hopes of becoming the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald, how he met the lovely Mimi one day on a bus and became immediately obsessed with her, how he eventually found her and they fell in love. Oh yeah, and how their relationship got weirder and kinkier and more disturbed and hate-filled until Oscar wound up in a wheelchair. Nigel is horrified and repulsed, but being British he is far too polite to leave in the middle of the story. Soon his horror gives way to unhealthy fascination, and he spends hours out of every day listening to Oscar's cruise ship confessions. Many times he is tempted to be rid of Oscar once and for all, but there is a strong suggestion that if he can endure the story, Oscar will let him sleep with Mimi. Nigel might not go through with it, but she's an interesting enough reward to keep him coming back for storytime every afternoon. Thus, the movie spends the vast majority of its running time in lurid, explicit flashbacks to "the way they were."
Fiona takes a very dim view of this, and suspects that something is up, either between Nigel and Mimi or Nigel and Oscar or some unspeakable combination of the three—which, come to think of it, isn't far off. When this whole sordid, tacky mess reaches its conclusion, however, it comes in a way that no one would ever expect.
Not unlike reading the horoscopes in one's local newspaper, how one views Bitter Moon is, I think, largely dependent upon which of the characters one identifies oneself with:
• Nigel: The stuffy, slightly cold but relatively well-adjusted
proper British husband, who is appalled by Oscar's story but too polite to say
anything about it until he's been completely sucked in.
Of course, I'm not sure who stands as Polanski's voice in the picture, but if I had to bet I would have to go with Oscar. I'm more of a Nigel myself, but I'm not really sure I'd want to be stuck on a cruise ship with any or all of them for an extended period of time. I have a sneaking suspicion that most viewers—males, anyway—watching this film will react in much the same way that Nigel does: repelled at first, but like witnesses to a freeway disaster unable to turn their eyes away, hoping all the while for a good look at Mimi naked. Be careful what you wish for…
However, there are those, such as Roger Ebert, who maintain that "it's not what a movie is about, but how it is about it" that matters. Well, in that case, Polanski is still out of luck because even if one accepts the bizarre sexual nature of the film, it is impossible to get past the gleefully tasteless manner in which he treats his subject. Imagine a truly lovely woman. Now, imagine her getting busy with Peter Coyote in far more detail than you really wanted to see. Now, imagine her at the breakfast table, pouring thick, creamy milk all over her bare chest and [Edited for Taste] just at the right moment, the toast pops out of the toaster. Cheesy, but not too bad so far, you say? Then imagine her playing bizarre fetish games with Coyote dressed in nothing but a pig mask and a g-string! I rest my case. Not only do the sex scenes (and there are plenty of them) in this film cross the lines of good taste, they also cross most lines of plausibility.
The dialogue is terrible as well, with the lines written for Coyote (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Basket) standing out above the rest. His lines, particularly the voice-overs narrating each flashback, are full of dime novel clichés, such as "we were living on love, but our credit was about to run out," or something to that effect. Even his vivid descriptions of sex with Mimi (stomach-turningly vivid, let me tell you) sound like rejected submissions to the Penthouse Forum. The intent is to satirize the character as a failed writer; someone should have pointed out to Polanski that this little conceit would only work if the rest of the writing were actually good by contrast.
Further crippling the whole effort are the lackluster performances of the whole cast. Grant (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) keeps a stiff upper lip and maintains his usual film persona. Thomas (Richard III, Four Weddings and a Funeral) is fine in her role as Fiona, but is given little useful to do until quite late in the movie. Coyote, looking remarkably like Kevin Costner after about a 10-year bender, mugs his way through the part like the kid in the senior class play who would really rather be at basketball practice. Seigner does a good job of staring blankly and looking sexy in a natural, "real women have curves" sort of way, but that's about it. Her character is crucial to making the film work on any level, and she does not have the acting ability to pull off what should be such a complex and tortured character. Instead, she vacillates between pouting and histrionics, overplaying every scene for all she's worth.
The result of all this is a bizarre mishmash that seems kind of like a soap opera by way of Skinemax.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you disregard the movie, the DVD is quite nice. Picture quality is above average. The image is sharp and clear, with no more haloing or other defects than normal. Fine textures, even the surface of the ocean, are pleasingly sharp and crisp. Shadow differentiation is excellent, and tone on tone areas—such as the lapel and body of Grant's navy blue jacket—are easily distinguished. Colors are natural and lifelike. There is some grain evident, usually just a normal, healthy amount, but in some darker scenes it does become pronounced enough to soften the image noticeably.
Audio is nice as well, so long as we don't have to listen to Oscar talking about Mimi's private parts. Dialogue and sound effects are reproduced at good levels relative to one another, so that dialogue always remains clear and easily understood. There is even some nice use of the surround channels for ambient sounds such as ocean waves.
This disc does feature some DVD-ROM online features. I don't have access to a DVD-ROM drive, so I can't evaluate them for you, but if the InterActual player works as well here as it did on the Star Wars prequel discs, you won't be able to access them either. There is also a collection of trailers. Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, Invincible, Sleeping Dictionary, and Invisible Circus are all represented.
One notable motif that Polanski uses repeatedly in this film is the image of someone vomiting. It is more often than not a woman; perhaps this represents his less than positive attitude toward women. Certainly his casting his own wife in this soft-porn morass speaks volumes on that subject. On the other hand, perhaps it sends a larger message—that we must expel the poisons we are exposed to in this life or they will kill us. That seems an apt metaphor for Oscar and Mimi's relationship; perhaps on another level it serves as a metaphor for Polanski's personal life in relation to this movie. He has certainly had to deal with his share of toxic realities, but one wishes he could simply hurl in private rather than on film. As it is, Bitter Moon is one ugly, vulgar excess after another—and it's not even any fun. Whether this film was created as some sort of sick joke, or perhaps as a way of Polanski working out his personal turmoil, it simply shouldn't have been inflicted on anyone but the Polish pedophile's therapist.
We find the defendant guilty! (Now there's a phrase Polanski should find familiar…)
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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