"For a moment, I almost weakened." —Peter Coyote, Bitter Moon
Moments before seeing Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon on April 8, 1994, I found out that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. Under normal circumstances, I'd have probably opted to save the film for another day, but my friend and I had traveled from Athens, Georgia to Atlanta on one of our regular arthouse pilgrimages, and it seemed silly to turn around and head back. We heard the news in a backward way: Having slipped into a neighboring bar to play some pinball to pass the time, we were surprised to hear a deep cut from the Nirvana compilation album Incesticide, then crushed by the sober tone of a DJ who would never think to play such a song on any other day. Needless to say, I felt unsettled stepping into the theater, and even more so on the way out, given how the ending of Polanski's movie dovetails with the end of Cobain's life. But for much of the 140 minutes in between, I guiltily confess to having a ball.
The world of Bitter Moon is precisely the kind of world from which Cobain wanted to escape: cruel, sadistic, and predatory, a place where sensitive souls are treated like wounded animals on the savanna. Throughout his life and career, Polanski has witnessed—and yes, perpetrated—some deplorable things, and in Bitter Moon, his cynicism about human nature curdles into very dark comedy. When it was first released, many critics were inclined to treat the film as a Basic Instinct knock-off, another in a long line of po-faced thrillers like Body Of Evidence that mixed kinky sexual acrobatics with deadly power plays. Seen in that context, the film does indeed look ridiculous, as anything would featuring Peter Coyote in silk underwear, crawling on all fours while wearing a pig mask. Somewhere behind the camera, Polanski is flashing a malevolent smile, but the comedic gamesmanship in Bitter Moon isn't entirely a joke. Beyond the golden showers and humiliating S&M rituals lies a nasty thesis: Love is the ultimate form of degradation.
In a callback to his 1962 debut feature Knife In The Water, Bitter Moon takes place on the open water, where tensions rise between two couples as their small cruise ship gets tossed around the Black Sea. Heading to India by way of Istanbul, Nigel and Fiona are celebrating seven years of stale, passionless marriage. And who better to play them than Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas, two actors who embody the stereotype of upper-crust British prudes? But the film makes clear from the start that secret passions lay dormant at the heart of the most conventional relationships, and when Nigel and Fiona meet their opposites in Oscar and Mimi, a twisted couple played by Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner, their marriage is thrown for a loop.
The bulk of Bitter Moon is covered in flashback, as Oscar, now confined to a wheelchair, tells Nigel the story of how he and Mimi met and embarked on a love affair that visited the extremes of rapture and misery. By his own admission, Oscar is a second-rate writer, who after eight years of hacking away in his Paris apartment, has only three unpublished novels and a stack of rejection slips to show for his efforts. He first encountered Mimi on a bus and was immediately entranced: "There was a freshness and innocence about her," he tells Nigel, "an almost disconcerting blend of sexual maturity and childish naïveté that touched my world-weary heart." Translation: Oscar found in Mimi the perfect combination of eager sex doll (she's even a dancer!) and easily manipulated little girl. The more she falls for him, the more power he can exert over her.
To hear Oscar tell it—and the lurid telling clearly excites Nigel, who's also easily manipulated—he and Mimi scaled erotic heights so sublime that he felt like Adam in the Garden Of Eden, seeing the beauty of the world for the first time. In the film's most potent section, Polanski follows Oscar and Mimi's sexcapades as they evolve from a tender lovemaking session by the fire to a days-long marathon where they "lived on love and stale croissants." Between Tonino Delli Colli's gauzy cinematography and a swooning Vangelis score, Bitter Moon plays like tongue-in-cheek softcore as Oscar and Mimi get further entangled. Naturally, their sexual openness leads to ever-more-outrageous forms of role-playing and experimentation, including various bondage scenarios and a golden shower that Oscar hilariously describes as "my Niles, my Ganges, my Jordan, my Fountain Of Youth, my second baptism." Check out the relish with which Oscar, now a pathetic lecher with tobacco-stained teeth, describes Mimi's "carnivorous flower" (definitely NSFW):
I don't know about the rest of you, but I could watch those Hugh Grant reaction shots all day. Flustered embarrassment has always been Grant's stock in trade, and Bitter Moon caught him before romantic comedies permanently hijacked him. His schoolboy infatuation with Mimi makes him easy prey for someone like Oscar, who has nothing left to fall back on but cruel machinations. He's reduced to an awful, even pitiable creature by the time Nigel makes his acquaintance, but Polanski suggests that love had its way with him, too, just as surely as it did with Mimi. If Nigel and Fiona's milquetoast relationship could be graphed as a straight line stretching to infinity, Oscar and Mimi's affair registers like an earthquake on a seismograph, rising and falling in sharp strokes, never quite finding equilibrium.
Though Bitter Moon takes Oscar and Mimi's example to absurd comic ends, Polanski touches a common arc in many relationships that start hot and flame out just as quickly, once that initial passion goes stale and there's nothing left to sustain it for the long haul. When Oscar crawls around in a pig mask, as barnyard noises are piped in through the stereo, the two have reached, in his words, "sexual bankruptcy," and they lack the tools to reconstitute their love from there. What remains is a toxic imbalance: Oscar is bored and Mimi still the infatuated naïf, which gives him the unholy leverage to abuse her at will. "Everyone has a sadistic streak," he tells Nigel, "and nothing brings it out better than the knowledge you've got someone at your mercy. If she fancied living in a living hell, I'd make it so hot even she would want out."
Oscar's tales about humiliating Mimi are as shocking in their own way as the kinkiest of their erotic scenarios. She tries to play happy housewife for him. She cooks him Thanksgiving dinner. She tolerates his affairs, and their infrequent, desultory sexual couplings, in which he deliberately calls out other names in the heat of dispassion. Lest Oscar be dismissed as completely monstrous, a lot of his behavior comes out of self-hatred and the stink of failure that follows him around; he knows he doesn't deserve love, so he can't respect a woman who loves him, much less reciprocate. That combination of self-loathing and cruelty comes out in this scene, in which Mimi hits him with some unwelcome news:
The other thing that scene reveals: Emmanuelle Seigner has her limitations as an actress, at least in the English language. She's also the director's wife, which explains her casting (to a large but not complete extent) and adds another unsavory layer of psychosexual tension quite apart from what's in the script. Without getting too humina-humina about it, I'd say she looks exactly right for the part: gorgeous and lithe, yes, but also childlike in the way Oscar describes, and imposing enough to take control as a dominatrix once the tables turn a second time. Her few great scenes are entirely physical, like the erotic sequence where she demonstrates her dance training to Oscar, or a gloriously over-the-top breakfast scene involving a liter of vanilla cream and George Michael's "Faith." (Later in the film, when she drinks straight out of the carton again, Oscar is repulsed.) But when the affair goes stale and Mimi is reduced to a desperate, pleading, broken-hearted slave to love, Seigner doesn't have the chops to carry it across.
To my mind, Seigner is only the most prominent of Bitter Moon's flaws: The pacing is lumpy, especially in the final third; Polanski's points about the nature of romantic passion are inevitably undermined by thriller gamesmanship; and Polanski and his co-writers don't reveal enough about Fiona (other than what Oscar describes as "a reticence that hints at untapped potentiality") to justify her surprising actions at the end of the film. Still, Bitter Moon is my favorite of the later-period Polanski films; it doesn't hum with the airtight efficiency of Death And The Maiden or command the respect of The Pianist, but the film is nasty, potent, and psychologically knotty in a way that recalls the devil-may-care, enfant terrible Polanski of old. To paraphrase Kurt Cobain's suicide note (itself quoting Neil Young), it's a film that would rather burn out than fade away.
Next week: Velvet Goldmine
Feb. 12: The Limey (commentary track)
Feb. 19: Eyes Wide Shut
Feb. 26: Heavenly Creatures