Happily, if coolly, married couple Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas) learn the meaning of the phrase "fate worse than death" when they're trapped on an ocean liner to India in the company of a disagreeable cripple named Oscar (Peter Coyote), who regales them--mostly
Nigel--with the dreadful story of his grand romance. Director Roman Polanski's contention that it's all meant to be howlingly funny is hard to credit; though BITTER MOON is awful in a baroque sort of way, it smacks of sincerity at all the worst moments.
Oscar is an unlikely Scheherezade, and perhaps that makes him all the more compelling--one suspects that the neat, prissy Nigel has never met anyone quite like this sneering American with yellowed teeth and long, dirty fingernails. Nigel knows he ought to feel sorry for him--the man's in a
wheelchair, after all, so it's only the decent thing to do--but can barely repress his horror. "Eternity began for me one day in Paris," Oscar declares grandly, and explains that he left America to pursue dreams of writing a novel in the inspiring city of Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. His
literary ambitions defeated by his own purple prose, Oscar instead turns his energies to Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom he meets one day on the bus. She's young and pretty and very French, and he decides that theirs is an all-encompassing love--the sort they write about in great novels--and
pursues her with ardor and determination. Having already seen the overripe Mimi in the ship's bar, Nigel is intrigued, especially when Oscar hints that his reward for listening will be a night of unimaginable delight with her. Though Nigel loves his wife, their relationship has a friendly, sibling
quality a world away from the erotic intensity that Oscar describes.
Oscar tells his tale in installments, and Nigel listens with both increasing dismay--he objects to being used as "a rubbish tip for your unsavory reminiscences"--and perverse titillation, periodically returning to his cabin to give Fiona the odd peck on the cheek. Mimi and Oscar are besotted by
one another, and their passion leads them to ever more exotic sexual practices. They explore bondage and fetishism, introduce pig masks, riding crops, urine, and vinyl clothing into their escapades. Finally, their lust is spent, and Oscar wants to move on. But Mimi clings, so Oscar torments her,
hoping she'll just go away. Miserable, she gains weight. He gives her a bad haircut, makes her wear hideous clothes, humiliates her at home and in public, and ultimately says he's taking her on a Caribbean vacation, only to abandon her at the airport. Away she flies, out of his life. Or so he
He, more debauched than ever, has an accident that puts him in the hospital. She, newly slimmed down, comes to visit and cripples him for good. She becomes his nurse, and glories in the reversal of power, making his life a misery in a thousand fiendishly petty ways. By this point in the telling,
it's New Year's Eve, and Nigel is beginning to wonder when he's going to collect his reward. Imagine his surprise when Mimi and the neglected Fiona, resplendent in a swank ball gown, share a sultry dance and then repair to a private cabin. The whole bad business comes to a predictable, overwrought
conclusion--Oscar shoots Mimi, then himself--and leaves Nigel and Fiona sadder but wiser.
A boat, a troubled marriage, a miasma of erotic tension: BITTER MOON sounds like a return to KNIFE IN THE WATER territory, which is to say, a return to what director Roman Polanski does best. But it's not; it's a dreadful misfire, a queasy exercise in excess that isn't erotic, isn't funny, and
never achieves the status of mordant cautionary tale because it's impossible to figure out the moral (unless it's supposed to be contained in the gnomic pronouncements of an Indian family man, played by Victor Banerjee, that Nigel keeps running into on deck). Polanski and screenwriter Gerard
Brach--collaborators on REPULSION (1965), CUL-DE-SAC (1966), THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), THE TENANT (1976), PIRATES (1986), and FRANTIC (1988)--start off with the arch device of making their narrator a writer of extravagant talentlessness, but don't seem to know what to do with it.
Viewers are simply condemned to an interminable series of overwrought anecdotes, made more difficult to bear by the way in which Polanski films his wife, the zaftig Seigner. Scarcely recognizable as the lithe beauty of FRANTIC, she's crammed into a series of ever more unflattering outfits; the
scene in which she demands to know whether she looks fat in an obscenely short rubber dress is made positively squirm-inducing by the low angle from which she is photographed. Not since Isabella Rossellini in BLUE VELVET has an actress been so visually ill-served by her personal relationship with
BITTER MOON is entertaining, but in the manner of ghastly car crashes and legendary theatrical disasters; you can't take your eyes off it, but you often want to. (Profanity, nudity, sexual situations, violence.)
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