Lawrence Russell

Bitter Moon (1992) dir. Roman Polanski writ. Polanski, Brach, Brownjohn (based on the novel Lunes de Fiel by Pascal Bruckner) cine. Tonino Delli Colli edt. Herve de Luze music Vangelis star. Peter Coyote (Oscar), Emmanuelle Seigner (Mimi), Hugh Grant (Nigel), Kristin Scott Thomas (Fiona), Stockard Channing (Beverly), Luca Vellani, Boris Bergman, Victor Banerjee

Fine Line Pictures

boulevard of broken dreams

Polanski's first feature Knife In The Water (1962) was about sex games on a boat, so you could say he's returned to his roots with Bitter Moon and the elegant nihilism that pervades its closed system reality. Imagine a small ocean liner somewhere on the Mediterranean, en route to Istanbul. Imagine a crippled American writer and his stunning French vixen wife encountering a staid English couple, involving them in their sexual nightmare... the end-game of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald? Sure. Or how about Hemingway's Jake Barnes and Lady Brett? It seems that the impotency of the Lost Generation is still extent at the close of the 20th Century.

Emmanuelle Seigner Polanski: Bitter Moon Peter Coyote

"You're exactly the listener I've been waiting for," says the crippled American writer to the Englishman. Remember how the Ancient Mariner apprehends the Wedding Guest en route to the wedding, forces him to listen to his tale of despair and self-loathing? How he killed the pure white albatross and endured a voyage through the spectral oceans of Hell? Bitter Moon employs a similar narrative method wherein one man is taken hostage by another man's tale of misery.

Oscar (Coyote) is the author of three unpublished novels, but the story he tells is his greatest novel to date... and his last. The voyeurism is exquisite. His brutal cynicism is the gallows humor of yet another artist doomed to be a comedian in his own failed desire for endless attention. Love? What is love -- a pig mask, black vinyl and a whip? Love is an unexpected encounter on the No. 96 Montparnesse bus when Oscar first sights Mimi (Seigner) and slips her his ticket, rescuing her from the contempt of the ticket inspector. Thus Oscar allows himself to be expelled from the bus, and smitten, watches as his new love disappears towards the boulevard of broken dreams. This is his first and last selfless gesture, alas, for what follows is a painful exercise in the corruption and degradation of the human spirit.

Of course Polanski is an established master of such gamesmanship... Repulsion was made long before the mutilation and murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family or his flight from the USA to avoid prosecution for the corruption and rape of an underage Valley girl. While it would be nice to view a Polanski film without recalling these tragic events, you cannot help but examine his psychodramas in the nuclear light of these sensational traumas. Yes, it must be tiresome for Polanski to have these events cast up as proof of a sick mind, yet when you read his forthright 1984 autobiography, you realize he's quite prepared to die in the crossfire.

This out of the way, it must be recognized that Roman Polanski is a reasonably honest man, and that as an artist he is fearless. The sadomasochism of the Oscar-Mimi relationship isn't unique to the decadent bohemian zeit geist of the Left Bank... for really, who hasn't seen just such a black comedy acted out in the midlife holocaust, even in the hick cities you call home. There's something very contemporary about Bitter Moon, both in its secular despair and frightening nihilism.

Oscar's contempt finds its perfect foil in the English twit persona of Nigel (Grant), the young husband bound for India on a holiday designed to give his seven year marriage some new karma. He stutters, he twitters, an anachronism in a preposterous universe.

As an American playing the expatriate writer role, Oscar is a combination of New World honesty and Old World cynicism, this duality made clear by the fact that he's paralyzed from the waist down. Nigel on the other hand is still an innocent, protected by the discipline of English middle-class manners, a man who is too polite to tell a cripple to go to hell, too polite to be in any other role than that of the masochist. He endures Oscar's sadism with the stoic English fatalism of the wounded hero in Waugh's seminal novel of cruel love, A Handful Of Dust,wherein a man who is held hostage in an Amazonian hut is forced to read Charles Dickens for the rest of his life to appease his captor, that denizen of evil, the village chief.

Bondage: Bitter Moon the English couple

Of course Nigel is also a victim of his own sexual desire, stricken by the sight of Mimi in a red dress dancing solo in the ship's lounge to Peggy Lee's classic love cry, Fever. As a femme fatale Mimi seems committed to the destruction of the entire male sex as if sent from Eden as a virus. There's nothing subtle about her act, both on-stage and off. Trained as a dancer, she exists only as foreplay, like a nymphomaniac from The Circus of Hell. The choreography of submission and bondage is her business. And while Nigel quickly recognizes that she and Oscar are playing a game, he is powerless to disengage. Oscar, once her lover, is now her pimp.

The two men sit drinking in Oscar's cabin. Meanwhile Nigel's wife remains in their cabin seasick while Mimi flirts in the bar or does dance exercises in her separate cabin. Nigel is galvanized by Oscar's story, becomes a voyeur to love and pornography, the twin sisters of civilization. Thus Polanski uses the trusty old frame narrative, the favorite story device of film noir...although the blackness in Bitter Moon isn't in the cinematic mystification of shadow and light but rather in the utter blackness of its world-view.

You know that Polanski has learned his lessons from the history of film. He revisited film noir with his period crime drama Chinatown (1974). While old noir left its sex to the imagination, neo-noir makes it a pornographic priority. This is essentially a historic movement from a religious culture into a secular culture. In film noir, crime is the surrogate of sex, whereas in neo-noir voyeurism has replaced the crime. Impotency remains, and death as a destination.

Thus Oscar's story is a dialectic of sex and corruption. He corrupts Mimi, he corrupts Nigel... and finally he corrupts Fiona. Essentially, Mimi is degraded from innocent love to sexual slavery by a man who is too selfish to set aside his fantasy of himself. Spiritual sex, grudge sex, healing sex, bondage sex -- it's all the paradigm of impotency. With no particular destination in mind, how could Oscar end up any other way than bored out of his mind? The romantic boulevards of Paris become avenues to further promiscuity. Yet his blatant infidelities and cruel innuendoes pale in comparison to his heartlessness when he tricks Mimi onto a jet bound for Martinique and then sneaks off the plane before takeoff, like a man abandoning a pet at the city dump.

Yes, Oscar is another American jerk. Yes, you smile with satisfaction when he unexpectedly gets whacked by a taxi when leaving a club intent on a private orgy with two girls. And yes, you smile with delight when Mimi reappears fresh from two years on Martinique and dumps him from his hospital bed onto the floor to writhe in the first overture of a new-found agony.

In his famous treatise on Tragedy, Aristotle elaborates on the essential narrative device of dramatic reversal. The reversal of Fortune in Bitter Moon is a reversal of power of superb ironic consequence. If Mimi was too stupid to be Oscar's muse, she's certainly smart enough to be his torturer. Back in his chic apartment, locked by paralysis in his wheelchair, he can only watch and sip his Bordeaux as Mimi dances with the feline negro Carl, then engages in intercourse. He can only watch and suffer when she medicates him with a dirty needle... and he can only suffer when she abandons him in the bath to talk dirty with some unknown lover on the phone. In fact, this scene is the crucible of what they've become: as Mimi babbles on the phone, Oscar rolls out of his bath, drags himself naked across the floor like a wounded animal seeking a warm place to die.

Yet this bleak farce has further dimensions of degradation. They get married... and they take a cruise.

"You think I enjoy being a rubbish dump for your unsavory reminiscences?" says Nigel at one point... but obviously he enjoys it better than he cares to admit as he's already trying to establish a rendezvous with Mimi. It also doesn't take long for the suffering Fiona to figure out that the attraction is Mimi, not pity for the crippled Oscar. Her first response is to flirt with a handsome Italian who looks like an Armani model... but a simple tit for tat isn't what Polanski has in mind. While you expect ruin for Nigel and Fiona, you don't expect it for Oscar, as he's been destroyed already.

So what are you to make of the lesbian solution -- is it the ultimate revenge of woman on the sexist pig? Or is it merely the science of birth control and the natural consequence of the impotent heterosexual... as the East Indian traveller advises the English couple, "Children are a better form of marital therapy than any trip to India." This old fashioned wisdom is as close to a redeeming moral as Polanski comes in this black farce on the high seas.

have you ever seen such an allegory of grace and beauty

It's an ugly ending... befitting, some would say, the final decade of an ugly century. "You were just too greedy, baby, that was all," says Oscar before putting the 9 mm automatic in his mouth. You wince at his desperate exit, yet realize it was scripted by his muse, the bitter moon in red who gave him the gun as a birthday present.

The soundtrack by Vangelis is excellent, is pure onomatopoeia with the ocean, the moon, the bitter spirit that pervades this story of poisoned love. But the film's power comes from its narrator. Peter Coyote moves through his role as if he is no mere fiction but rather an eloquent subject of cinema verite. His resemblance to that well-known poetic undertaker Leonard Cohen (or even Pascal Bruckner, author of the novel) perhaps helps some of us suspend our disbelief... yet the fact remains that Coyote is utterly convincing as Oscar, an American writer as horny as Henry Miller but without the humanism of his famous precursor.

You wonder if there is any irony intended in the name "Oscar".

Paris: you get your kicks on Route 96.

© LR 92/2000


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