Bitter Moon March 24, 2017
Though it’s possible that Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1993) was made specifically to showcase its maker’s voluptuous actress wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as a capable femme fatale, it’s more realistic that in the throes of pre-production Polanski realized just how much Seigner looks like one of those dangerous femmes seen on the cover of a pulp novel and ran with it. The casting, to be sure, is a stroke of genius.
In Bitter Moon, Seigner does indeed play a dangerous woman, but because she possesses the kind of enigmatic beauty which complements Polanski’s adoration for the lopsided, she’s something like Isabella Rossellini in the eyes of David Lynch. Note that it isn’t until the second time we see her in the film that she becomes a cockeyed Rita Hayworth. Polanski, subversively, first introduces her as a victim of sea sickness with vomit dribbling down her chin. In that moment, we reach the epiphany that she’s fleshy allure who isn’t necessarily going to prove herself as every man’s fantasy. There’s a chink to be found on the surface of her ethereal beauty.
Our meeting her is almost accidental, and perhaps we don’t immediately notice that she’ll become the film’s most intriguing aspect. As Bitter Moon opens, we’re wont to believe that the characters driving all the action will be Nigel and Fiona Dobsen (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas), a mannered English couple vacationing on a Mediterranean cruise. They hope the trip will allow them the much-needed off time they’ve been craving for months.
But all inadvertently turns to shit when they meet that aforementioned dangerous woman, Mimi Bouvier (Seigner). Akin to most people trying to enjoy a holiday, they expect – or hope – to never see her again, as friendly exchanges were made as Fiona found the lady suffering from nausea in the bathroom. But paths are immediately crossed once again when Nigel gets acquainted with Oscar Benton (Peter Coyote), Bouvier’s volatile, wheelchair-bound husband.
From there, Bitter Moon heads in a different direction than one might expect. Rather than indulge itself in the romantic melodramas it originally seems to promise, it surprisingly becomes all about Benton and Bouvier’s torrid relationship, which the former recounts explicitly to Nigel.
And I suppose Polanski thinks that the spotlighting of that relationship is interesting, given that Benton and Bouvier’s love starts off passionate and burning, descends into weird detours into sadomasochism, bondage, and verbal abuse, and currently looks like a pale imitation of the hatefulness cum obsession sitting in between Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery (1990).
But Coyote and Seigner don’t have the chemistry to sell the unhealthy union: Coyote’s a strange sort of hapless, first appearing to be a victim to Bouvier’s erratic carnality only to amount to being a grade-A sleazeball deserving of his torment, and Seigner, while perfect as a vixen, never convinces us that she’s actually dependent on her object of affection to survive as we’re supposed to believe. She’s so effective when portraying Bouvier’s bouts of cool that she can never get her plunges into erotic fixation to move past us persuasively.
And the wasting of Grant and Thomas is a bother, too – they’re much too charismatic to be given thankless parts that don’t require them to be much more than the concrete foundation resting under a rustic bungalow.
So Bitter Moon, keeping its artistic prowess in mind, is your typical minor feature from a cinematic master. It’s competently shot and plenty able to utilize the positives that come with confident artistry, but it never quite grabs us. With 30 or so minutes cut out and with a more conventional disposition, it’d likely be able to stand alongside other bold erotic thrillers of the period (like 1992’s Basic Instinct or 1994’s The Last Seduction) and hold its own. But Polanski can’t stop himself from indulging his plentiful lascivious curiosities, and the film comes out at the end of the tunnel as something to keep at a distance. C