AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
A FILM BY
by Harlan Kennedy
Roman Polanski's Bitter
Moon lives up to its title.
It's luminous and implacable, sour and serene. It's glitteringly circular. And at high tide it draws an ocean
of seething questions towards the viewer and
deposits them at his feet: Will love without bounds always lead to death? Do art and life ever stop leaking into each other? And is this the most stylishly mordant film from its director since
Yes – a loud yes – to the last. Nearly twenty years of being a Hollywood-graduated director working in Paris have spawned a series of Esperanto movies in which Polanski has groped to rediscover the old three-way balance among comedy, surrealism, and Grand Guignol. His
only partial success story before
now was The Tenant ('76),
made in France just before the
director's last fateful trip to
Bitter Moon is also about a Paris-based claustrophobe whose brain is imploding. (Make mental note to ask Polanski whether these roles are autobiographical.) Peter Coyote's Oscar is a wheelchaired expatriate American would-be novelist on a Mediterranean cruise with his sex-bomb wife Mimi (played by Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner). To speed the voyage, he ensorcels a young English couple. Shockable Nigel (Hugh Grant) is subjected to nightly tales of Oscar and Mimi's sex life, and Mimi herself is unleashed at both Nigel and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas). Finally, Oscar cooks up a folie à quatre for New Year's Eve – but will there be blood before bedtime?
As shipboard romances go, this one is a lulu. There's nothing funnier in modern European cinema than the sexual storytelling scenes between let-it-all-hang-out Coyote and I-say-do-put-it-all-back-in-again Grant. This is The Ancient Mariner rearranged for the age of eyebrow-raising sexual confessional. And in the true tradition of seagoing cinema, life on the ocean wave so upsets "normal" human transaction that barriers between people crash, and so do the bulkheads between past and present, truth and invention. Our base is a luxury cruiseship, but much of Bitter Moon – even most of it – is flashback: Oscar's giant self-narrated backstory, as queasy in its sexual rollings and pitchings as the voyage on which he's telling it.
In choppy seas the film's own sense of
direction never falters. You've got to go back to Cul-de-sac ('66) for a tauter Polanski black comedy, to Repulsion
('65) for a richer picture of psychosexual suffocation and the prone bodies – live, dead, in-between – that it leaves all over the floor. And if Bitter Moon isn't in
This movie is a quartet. Coyote is our cellist, growling out nightly confessiones amantis to Grant's viola-voweled Limey. And first and second violins are Scott Thomas' squeaky-posh Fiona and Seigner's Mimi – she of the high, husky voice and voluptuous erogenous zones. These include breasts from which Oscar likes to lick spilt milk, thighs to drive men mad, and a conversation-point derrière. ("You think my ass ees too fat." "No, I don't." "Yes, you do.")
Bitter Moon is about bodies and souls
in hopeless, funny-tragic
entanglement; it's a movie essay on
folly, volatility, and the nasty
things that happen to human beings
when they exchange spiritual fluids.
It begins as a quest for "inner serenity;" with
Voicing his chunks of remembrance with a parodic literary drawl –
"Eternity for me began one
fall day in
This disenchantment trailers the descents and deconsecrations to come. As Oscar and Mimi set up house, love gives way to lust, lust gives way to a series of near-slapstick sex sessions (try not to giggle when Oscar achieves simultaneous climax with a pop-up toaster), and soon we're in the down elevator of erotic madness, plummeting from Lingerie and Kitchenware towards injury, insult, and sadistic humiliation.
But of course the movie works the other way, too. Who wants a one-direction lecture on the bargain-abasement cruelties of sex? Polanski, adapting Pascal Bruner's novel, may be giving us a tale of human passion and the havoc it wreaks on frailest and toughest sensibilities. (Never shy of symbolism, the director lays on the coital sign-language right from the credits sequence: a slow out-then-in camera movement through a porthole.) But Mimi and Oscar's conjugal tussle also becomes a bid to pass through the fire of sex into some pure, surreal zone where love and hate coexist in distilled abstraction. By the late phases of their flashbacked liaison – certainly by the time they meet the Brits – they're bound together less by deeds than by words and thoughts: the celibate coinage of a mutual attachment too deep, too deadly, too "odi et amo" for the old fun and games.
The movie begins and ends with the English duo, but it's fast clear that the French-American couple are the central characters. They're George and Martha
in our shipboard Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Nigel and Fiona as Nick and Honey, the innocents press-ganged to be witnesses, playthings, victims. Oscar relives his journey to hell and back using the Englishman's infinite capacity to be scandalized – "For God's sake, man! ... Steady on... I say, there are limits" – as a fairground mirror for his carnival of black narcissism. Hugh Grant makes these scenes the funniest cameos of Brit repression in modern cinema: start polishing that Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Lighting charts the spiritual journey of the storytelling sessions. Shadows steal across Coyote's face as we move through narration scenes one, two, three .... Then they start to lift when Oscar reaches some mysterious, unspoken rallying point. By the final reel he's forsaken his florid self-pity to become destiny's grandmaster again – the artist redivivus – and to design a last ingenious liebestod that will involve all four characters.
If the movie's compact cast says chamber music, its interrelatedness of themes says suite with variations. Variations on transference: Oscar's relationship with Nigel is a parody of patient-analyst. Nigel's relationship with Fiona and Mimi exists on a sliding scale of arrant lasciviousness, its tipsy volatility metaphor'd in the rolling of the ship. (No terra firma here, either literal or emotional.) And Oscar's relationship with Mimi begins as one of equal balance; then turns into master-slave, with bored male taunting besotted female; then reforms into mistress-slave when he is crippled by one gesture from Mimi that's part vengeance, part clinching act of emotional annexation. Mimicking the movement with which they once reached towards each other's hands on a fairground carousel, she pulls him off a hospital traction-bed shortly after he has been felled in a street accident.
One "transference" variation, though, is larger and louder than any other. It's the commerce or slippage between reality and fiction, between what we perceive as present truth (the shipboard scenes) and what we take in through the reshaping mind of Oscar. Bitter Moon is full of frames, but the frames are tantalizingly leaky. Reality seeps into them, artifice out of them. Portholes serve as transitional images between a "real" now and a narrator-mediated then; the windows in Oscar's apartment look out on a painted backdrop of Paris, plus an Eiffel Tower that seems to have been picked out with a 40-watt bulb; and television screens boast pictures that steal eerily into the world outside. When Oscar is knocked over by a car and loses consciousness, his body is swept across by mysterious mists. The mists then go black-and-white and are revealed to be those of a TV program Oscar is watching, days later, from his hospital bed.
Even the word processor harboring the author's autobiographical novel – we strongly suspect it's the same story, word for word, he's been telling Nigel – is invaded by phantoms of the real: notably, a computer graphics version of the poster he first saw on the bus carrying her, an image we keep glimpsing as if it were Mimi's personal leitmotif. It's actually an ad for a Minitel dating service, featuring a scantily clad, recumbent model and the resonant tagline "Honi soit qui mal y pense."
Bitter Moon knocks spots off Polanski's other movies made in France since that final rift with America: a rift that not only prevented his return to U.S. shores but condemned him to relinquish the genre-busting showmanship of Rosemary's Baby ('68) and Chinatown and settle for working in a culture at the tail-end of its cinematic glory. Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown were double-life movies that could subvert storytelling systems because they dwelt inside those systems; the Europe in which Polanski settled in the late Seventies was one where all moviemaking styles and systems – artistic, commercial, narrative – were beginning to falter. Results for this filmmaker ranged from nervous, half-baked literary adaptations (Tess, '80) to anxious attempts to jolly-roger genre cinema back into life (Pirates, '86; Frantic, '88) from an unsympathetic Euro-base.
So why does Bitter Moon work? Because
it's not so much by Polanski in crisis as about Polanski in crisis. Take a banished artist. Show
him malfunctioning before the tools
of his creativity (Oscar's word
processor substituting for Roman's camera). Surround him with a
Bitter Moon does not
demand to be read as a Polanski
fable. But the hint of self-portraiture
has lent a lucid extra voltage to
the artist's creative dynamo, enabling
a career that came unplugged from
cinema's greatest storytelling mains-supply
to find a new power source in a new
land. Europe, après tout, is the place
where the subtle personal signature
replaces the loud-hailed public anecdote.
In deconstructing/debunking the very
art and ritual of storytelling, Bitter
Moon has a late laugh at
When I played telephone tag with Polanski, inviting his views on a film he completed over two years ago, amnesia warred in him with spasms of affectionate recall. "You know, I already forgot about this movie. Now when you ask me about it, I realize it's really nasty and funny at the same time!
"That was always our
intention. Unfortunately, some people,
like the critics here in
A humor with a sly line, too, in echoing and reechoing images, from misbehaved milk cartons to metamorphic moons. "You know, when you write a script you use a certain grammar, and in a grammar you have words, and words repeat themselves, like notes or groups of notes in music. That's what gives a film style.
"The moon appears several times, but it's never the same moon. It's full at the beginning, but later when Mimi's leaving, when she's gone on a plane after Oscar's left her, it's a crescent; it's a moon in a quite different shape. The last quarter of a moon can be very menacing, and also romantic at the same time."
Like a scimitar. So with this celestial sword of Damocles hanging over them, why do punishment-hungry Oscar and Mimi keep getting together again? "Well, they're people who can't live without each other – and who can't stand each other. That's the problem!"
My problem is my crackling phone line to the Champs Elysées. But my last question still waits to be asked. Why this story? Why these characters? Did the director identify with one, or all, or any of them?
Long pause. "No."
Shorter pause. `Absolutely not!"
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN-FEB 1994 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.