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 Chinatown ('74)?

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 California. This starred Polanski himself in an everyday tale of murder, cross-dressing, and hallucination. The fresh-air bits with Isabelle Adjani didn't work, but the cabin-fevered bits in the apartment were vintage Polanskiana. They let us inside that inner world com­pounded of equal parts Gothic paranoia and psychic knockabout.

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 Chinatown's class, it's only because a chamber piece can't be expected to make the same waves as a symphony.

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 India the British couple's planned destination on a voyage cele­brating their seventh wedding anni­versary. This bid for transcendence is fast scuppered (SCENE: DINING-ROOM INTERIOR, DAY) by their Indian fellow passenger Victor Banerjee, scornfully dismissing his country as "flies, smells, and beggars." And soon every high ideal in the English duo's book – every bid to place human nature and experience on a honeymoon plane beyond gravity – is brought to earth with a bump by Oscar and his carnal revelations.

Voicing his chunks of remembrance with a parodic literary drawl – "Eternity for me began one fall day in Paris..." – Oscar opens up the portals of carnal­ity while Polanski oils the trapdoors into the abyss. The pattern's set with our and Oscar's first flashbacked glimpse of Mimi. There she is: face of a goddess poised surreally, ethereally, against a moving background of Paris streets. But it's a trompe-l'oeil deification – we soon realize she's only on a bus, standing against its back window.

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 claustrophobic Paris whose reputation as an artistic capital has become a "vieux jeu" (in the Bitter Moon word of publisher Stockard Channing). Then top everything off by having the man crippled by sexual adventurism. This happens to Oscar after his exile; it hap­pened to Polanski before his exile and caused that exile.

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 Holly­wood while showing Europe there is life in the old avant garde yet.

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 Europe, don't dare to laugh at a Polanski film. But the public does laugh. When I saw it in a cinema I was really thrilled, because every bit we intended to be funny came out the way we wanted. But it's a very nasty humor!"

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!"

Oh dear.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.