Derisive laughter mingled with disgust greeted a recent screening of Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon. Those who didn’t storm out stayed to enjoy a kinky hoot. Polanski has great wicked fun with sex, love, cruelty, books, movies and, of course, himself. If you don’t go along with the joke, you’re in for rough sailing.
The film’s main setting is a luxury liner en route to the Orient. On board is Oscar (Peter Coyote), an American writer confined to a wheelchair but possessed of an imagination without limits. Oscar is married to Mimi, a French knockout played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. Mimi attracts the attention of Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas), a reserved Brit couple trying to enliven their marriage. Oscar’s their boy; the impotent chatterbox shocks them with tales of Mimi’s bedroom exploits.
In flashbacks, Polanski and co-writers Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn use Oscar’s flamboyant language to tell how Oscar and Mimi changed from enraptured lovers to perverse cynics. Polanski adopts different film styles to fit the mood, from the romantic effusion of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind) to the sly decadence of Luis Buñuel (Belle de jour). Sadly, Polanski isn’t above borrowing porn-film clichés. The black stud, the lesbian exhibitionist and the big-boobed dominatrix in leather all put in appearances.
The cast is certainly game. Coyote is a sexual mad hatter, though the sight of him naked, oinking on all fours is not for every taste. Oscar’s cruel games humiliate Mimi. After the accident that cripples him, she gains the upper hand. Oscar is reduced to pimping, which is where Nigel and Fiona come in. The rest should be a surprise. Bitter Moon is rarely coherent If Polanski intended a nutso satire of sexual obsession, our congratulations. If he merely intended to work out his own hang-ups, our sympathies. Either way, you won’t be bored.