Bitter Moon: Polanski’s Nasty, Sleazy Personal Film

A psychiatrist, preferably of the Freudian school, should have a field day analyzing Roman Polanski’s perversely erotic film, Bitter Moon. The movie was made two years ago and could not find an American distributor, until Fine Line picked it after a favorable reception at the Toronto Film Fest.

I saw the film two years ago, when a small distributor asked for my opinion, and had strong reservations about it. Last month I went to see it again and had more or less the same feelings.  Due to some good reviews, Fine Line has widened its release and it’s now playing in three houses in L.A.

“Bitter Moon” is a must-see for Polanski’s fans and those who have followed his career; it’s his most interesting film since “Chinatown” and “The Tenant,” back in the 1970s.

For other viewers, it’s a curiosity that’s worth a look. It’s also the kind of work that we associate with European filmmaking. American movies that are trying to delve into the mystique of sexual passion and eroticism often end up making ridiculous statements, as was evident in “91/2 Weeks” and “Basic Instinct.”

“Bitter Moon” is always watchable, and sporadically engaging, a nasty and sleazy feature that may be more personal than perceived.

Polanski, who is now 60 and lives in France, fled the U.S. in 1977 to avoid a sentence for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. You may also remember that his wife, the beautiful actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson family, when she was nine months pregnant. Add to it the fact that his family was exterminated soon after the Nazi occupation of Poland and you get a picture of a man who has every right to make horror, macabre films with a dark sense of humor.

Set aboard a luxury cruise ship, Bitter Moon consists of flashbacks, as they are narrated by Oscar (Peter Coyote), an American novelist who lives in Paris. A failed writer who has never published a word, Oscar needs an audience for his tale of how romantic love and sexual passion can turn sour, humiliating, and ultimately tragic. Oscar finds the “perfect” ears in Nigel (the busiest actor of the moment, Hugh Grant), a repressed Brit, who is taking his wife Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas) to India for a second honeymoon.

Oscar begins with a broad philosophical statement, “Every relationship contains the seeds of farce and tragedy.” But what follows is more farcical than tragic. In the first–and better-hour, Oscar recounts how he met Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), an innocent young girl, who trains to be a dancer but works as a waitress, on a bus and immediately fell for her. In this part, Polanski shows again his superb mise-en-scene and talent at evoking ambience and mood. (The entire movie is well-directed, even its absurd sequences).

In the second part, when the libido dries, to salvage their relationship, Oscar and Mimi begin a series of sex games (she pours milk on her breasts and he licks it, they buy S&M sex toys, etc). But when these possibilities are exhausted too, they turn to game of domination and power; at first, he tortures her, then she gets her chance at a brutal revenge.

As in the best film noir, Oscar’s voice-over narration is deliberately overwrought. He says: “I might have been Adam with the taste of apple fresh in my mouth.” With all my reservations about the characters’ masochism and self-degradation, Peter Coyote should be singled out for rendering a powerful and original performance.

The most disappointing element of Bitter Moon is how conventional Polanski’s ideas are. And it’s even more disturbing that in his depiction of the British characters, he resorts to using the familiar stereotypes of the repressed Brits. Polanski plays a nasty joke on Nigel, as he gets more and more drawn to Oscar’s story–he is promised an amorous night with Mimi (which he never gets) in exchange for listening to the story. And as much as Nigel voices his disgust at what he hears, he always comes back for some more.

There is real pathos toward the end, when the unmanned Oscar is sitting in his wheelchair, forced to watch Mimi as she makes love to a black man. From then on, this saga of sexual compulsion goes downhill, until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

I have no idea if the name Oscar bears any symbolic meaning, but I am quite sure that in calling the heroine Mimi, Polanksi is evoking the tragic protagonist of Puccini’s noted opera, La Boheme. Ultimately, and here is where Freud comes in, Bitter Moon is about how obsession with sex can make some men behave like pigs. Is Polanksi repenting for his own sins And it still baffles me why a director would subject his real wife, who has just given birth to his baby, to such humiliating games.

In a recent interview, Polanski, who is a survivor of the Holocaust, singled out Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which last week swept 7 Oscar Awards, as a great film. So far, he claims, he has not dealt with this chapter of his life as a filmmaker. I wonder if he ever will.

Most directors suffer when they are in exile, but the extremely talented Polanski, who gave us such fine films as Knife in the Water, Repulsion (which features Catherine Deneuve’s most mesmerizing performance), and Rosemary’s Baby, is a particularly tragic victim.

Since he left the U.S., 17 years ago, he has made only 4 movies, none too good. I can only hope that his new film, the political drama, “Death and the Maiden,” with Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, will bring back his high level of artistry.