The best Roman Polanski films are horrifying shaggy-dog stories. Chinatown, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby et al. have their political and sexual underpinnings, but they play out as vicious anti-jokes, so cruel even the Coen brothers would balk at the suggestive nihilism of the director’s dénouement-preventing climaxes. Even The Pianist, with its personal identification of a Pole hiding from the Nazis, undercuts the triumph usually felt when someone survives the Holocaust with the grim reminder that everyone Wladyslaw Szpilman loved were not so lucky (Polanski lost his mother to the death camps at Auschwitz).
But none of Polanski’s movies, save perhaps the appropriately titled What?, comes close to the bewildering properties of his most unfairly overlooked film, Bitter Moon. It is as unremittingly bleak as Chinatown, more so, perhaps; Polanski’s ’74 opus dealt with the grim futility of the political system, a game always stacked in everyone’s favor but yours. However, one expects to be destroyed by the political machine. Bitter Moon’s games are sexual, not political, thus making Polanski’s twisted machinations all the more unsettling. Sex has always played a role in the director’s work, but never has it been so naked, so repugnant.
Opening with the makeshift iris shot of a close-up of a porthole, Bitter Moon centers its narrative on a tourist cruise liner headed for Istanbul. A British couple, Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), are celebrating their seventh anniversary by traveling to Turkey and then making their way to India. In no time, other passengers, particularly a kindly Indian man (Victor Banerjee), suss out that the two planned the trip to try to add some spice into their cooling relationship, looking to the mystical powers of the Ganges to restore them like so many tourists. The Indian man only laughs at their supposed journey, pointing out the lunacy of trying to find inner peace in “the noisiest place on Earth.”
The hints of marital discord become more pronounced when Nigel separates from his seasick and cabin-ridden wife to tour the boat, stumbling upon a sultry Frenchwoman named Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner). Compared to his polite, stiff wife, the rude and confrontational Mimi stuns Nigel with her explosive sexuality, and her disregard for him only heightens the excitement. Then, her husband enters the picture. Far from angry, however, Oscar (Peter Coyote), a wheelchair-bound American vulgarian, takes a shine to Nigel and invites him back to his cabin for a drink.
That cabin becomes a nightmarish twist on the Proustian memory bank. For the bulk of the remaining film, we dip in and out of Oscar’s flashbacks as he regales a horrified but fascinated Nigel with ribald tales of his and Mimi’s relationship. Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests these chunks of reminiscence fit into a four-movement sonata structure, and that’s an apt way to make sense of what is a fundamentally absurd movie.
To call it absurd, however, suggests it might be a gay old romp, when it is in fact the opposite. Polanski dives into the fractured landscape of sexual desire, exploring the realms of passion and fetish and the thin line that divides the two. The first movement, the allegro, lays out the exposition with Oscar’s flowery descriptions melodramatically introducing the story as a sunny flashback fills the screen. An ex-pat writer living in Paris on a trust fund, Oscar’s aspirations get sidelined when he runs into Mimi on a bus and cannot think about anything but her for months. Eventually, they meet again and begin a relationship, the thirtysomething faux-intellectual falling for the schoolgirl routinely decked out in dancing clothes.
Even in this rosy view, Polanski sows the seeds for what’s to come. Every image in Bitter Moon is sexualized: when Oscar goes on his first date with Mimi, he waits for her at her dance studio, spandex-clad youths gyrating and tap-dancing in the window behind him. Mimi emerges wearing her dance outfit and sporting a bashful smile. Though Oscar’s narration describes love, his fetishistic delight is already on-display. Soon, the couple’s sexuality becomes more pronounced, Mimi drinking milk from a phallic body and letting it spill down her open robe — Polanski caps this scene with Mimi going down on Oscar as toast hilariously springs jubilantly from a toaster. Oscar does not devote an ounce of memory to shared interests, hobbies, walks in the park or any of that “nonsense.” He revels in the memory of sex, the glorious, continuous orgasm they shared at the start of their relationship.
Before the first movement ends, however, Oscar has moved into darker territory. The passion these two lovers feel for each other is so intense that it cannot hold; at some point, you’ve got to rinse yourself off and go to work. Eventually, they settle into what still seems a healthy sexual relationship but, like cocaine addicts looking for that first high, they start going to greater lengths to recapture the lost purity of their sex. With the same fanciful air of his descriptions of love at first sight, Oscar begins talking about sadomasochism and bondage. The split between first and second movements occurs when he discusses, in almost Joycean detail, a bout of urophagia with Mimi that served as their “sexual Rubicon.”
Polanski’s consistent eye for formal daring serves him well through the transitions of the movie. He uses soft lighting and red hues for his first section, all sunlight and candles and cozy fires. Then, the mise-en-scène shifts: Oscar’s spacious apartment is initially inviting and elegant, but when he and Mimi retreat into this den to chase their lust, it comes to resemble a horrid brothel, dank with sex fumes and drying fluids. They cover the windows, casting everything in filthy brown. Every experiment into role-playing, domination and pain seems to suck more light from the place, until the only bright source of illumination is the computer monitor, mocking Oscar for his writer’s block. The grim shift suggests that Oscar starts to blame Mimi for his inability to write anything worth publishing, and every professional setback leads him to torture her further.
That altering repetition defines the film, Polanski always returning to shots with different, darker meanings and perspectives. The innocence that made Mimi so appealing returns when Oscar cruelly attempts to break up with her out of boredom; now, that innocence becomes weakness to the audience and irritation to Oscar, who preys upon her willingness to accept anything in order to stay with him by making her life a living hell of humiliation and psychological torture. His cruelty abates when he gets her pregnant and demands an abortion, only to commit his cruelest act yet by abandoning her in his shame. Years later, she returns, and the roles reverse. The initial S&M play features Mimi tying Oscar up and kicking over his chair, and when she later cripples him she does the same to his wheelchair. Oscar soon feels his lecherous domination reversed as Mimi takes advantage of his new paraplegia to mock him ruthlessly.
As I watched Bitter Moon, my thoughts drifted to another grim look at sexual relations, betrayal and psychological warfare, Takashi Miike’s Audition. The parallels between the two films suggest Miike was a fan: both movies feature innocent young women psychosexually tortured into madness and villainy, unsparing criticism of older men seeking sexual submission from younger, pliant women; both even feature the female character crippling the male.
But if Miike’s film focuses on the monster created by men, Bitter Moon remains on the male figure. Miike’s Aoyama was more a stand-in for the entire patriarchy, but one gets the impression that Oscar reflects one man in particular: Polanski himself. An artist fleeing America to live in sexual exile in France, using his younger lover to get out all his sexual proclivities—sound familiar? Seigner gets the chance to play some demented, fever-vision iteration of herself (being the real-life Mrs. Polanski and all), but her childlike naïveté and the public humiliation she suffers at Oscar’s hands suggests a tacit, perhaps unconscious suggestion of Polanski’s criminal past. When Oscar speaks of his wife emerging from his torture to inflict all that back upon him tenfold, he speaks with moral resignation, confessing in his self-loathing that he feels he deserves his punishment. This may be the closest Roman Polanski has ever come to expressing genuine remorse for the crime that drove him from America 33 years ago, either in film or in real life.
That might explain why Polanski can bear to stay in the room with Oscar as the man relates his story, but why does Nigel? Why do we? Everything Oscar says is repellent; even when he’s describing the first stages of his romance, he focuses on the grimy, the vulgar. By the time Oscar gets down to relating his abuse of Mimi and her abuse of him, I wanted to slap Nigel and say “Leave the room!” until I realized I was still watching the movie. There’s something horrifically recognizable in Oscar’s story, however ridiculous it is, and even the inanity of his overripe prose helps suck in the audience more: his words are as loopy and melodramatic as the scenarios they describe, but there’s a desperate, reaching sincerity to his pretension that makes him all the more transfixing.
The final two movements of Polanski’s demented sonata continue the structure: the scherzo actually featuring a dance as the tourists gather for a New Year’s Eve party. Like the audience, Nigel is now hooked, and he seeks an opportunity to be with Mimi despite all the horrors he’s heard. But his obsession backfires, and the dance serves only to punish Nigel for his drifting thoughts. The final act is even more damning, a violent act that forces Nigel and Fiona to confront their childish fears of marital normalcy with sights of what unabated passion truly looks like.
“It’s no fun hurting someone who means nothing to you,” Oscar eerily tells Nigel late in the film, which suggests that Roman Polanski, for all his misanthropy, has some regard for his audience. Otherwise, why would he abuse us so badly? Bitter Moon works solely because of the careful modulation of its master’s hand, its recurring visual motifs tethering the movie back to some recognizable source even as the complex variations on those themes plunge the film into darker and darker waters.
Polanski’s pitch-black ending finds a semi-hopeful counterpoint in his usage of parenthood as an alternative to the sex games played throughout. The Indian man totes around his young daughter, encouraging the British couple to fix their marriage through child-rearing instead of meaningless trips. The advice smacks of cliché on the level of a spiritual journey to India, but Polanski clearly feels differently now that he’d just had a child. Fatherhood could be the impetus for his airing of perversions in a stylistic confessional, and the normalcy that the young girl embodies seems alluring even to the child-averse Nigel by the end.
Though it may be the most inherently ludicrous and self-consciously stylistic of Polanski’s masterpieces, Bitter Moon also finds an unexpected resonance in its autocritique. Here is a movie that mixes Repulsion with Chinatown and still finds the space to offer up a glimpse of happiness moving past these self-absorbed couples. Then again, the fact that it is only ever a glimpse may be the cruelest aspect of the film.