Much has been made about some of the kinkier shenanigans on display (and expressed verbally) in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, his acid-black comedy of 1992 based upon the novel Lunes de Fiel by Pascal Bruckner, and I think that has always done the film a distinct disservice. This is not to suggest that the kinkiness is inconsequential to the story being told – indeed, one of the film's main themes is the extent to which white-hot romance can reasonably be expected to continue, and the ends to which some will go in an attempt to reinforce it as it inevitably wanes. Rather, I think some of the darker elements lurking below the surface have always been either overlooked or misunderstood (or perhaps just understood differently by me, anyway) by the gleeful – and alternately somber – perversity. Bitter Moon is, I think, still one of the most perceptive, insightful, and disturbing glimpses into amour fou of the nineties, and easily one of my favorite Polanski films. In addition, if you happen to get on its particular wavelength, it's also very, very funny.
"Where are you going?"
"Further... much further."
Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Nigel (Hugh Grant), a seemingly conventional British couple, are sailing the Mediterranean to Istanbul en route to India (good for "karma" Nigel halfheartedly remarks). A childless, attractive, and relatively young couple married for seven years, it is readily apparent that although there remains a genuine affection between the two, things are not perfect. As Fiona excuses herself to the bathroom, she encounters a young woman reeling from seasickness who is quickly aided by the couple. Later that evening, Nigel encounters her again as he stops by the bar alone for a nightcap, although this time she appears radically different. Dancing alone to the strains of Peggy Lee's "Fever," Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife) has been transformed from a sickly, nondescript woman into a voluptuous, carnal being. Nigel attempts awkward conversation, only to be toyed with and then flatly dismissed by the totally in control Mimi. By the time she quickly exits the bar, Nigel is already taken - little does he know where this infatuation will eventually lead him.
Back aboard deck, Nigel meets Oscar (Peter Coyote), an abrupt, wheelchair-bound American unafraid to challenge Nigel regarding the sexual allure of his – it is soon determined – wife Mimi. Coaxing Nigel back to his cabin for a drink and conversation, Oscar begins to weave a tale of unabashed romantic infatuation. Their idyllic courtship is described in syrupy, prose-like fashion – the initial attraction, the desire to insulate from the world, the insatiable sexual curiosity. This charming reminiscence is soon usurped, however, by a candor and frank eroticism that renders Nigel uncomfortable and disturbed. Oscar, observing that every relationship contains "seeds of farce and tragedy" informs him that this aspect merely adds context to the tale he is telling. Not amused, Nigel decides to call it an evening.
After telling the bemused but somewhat repelled Fiona about the evening's events, Nigel and his wife soon find themselves again within Oscar's orbit. Charming when he has to be, Oscar asks Fiona's permission to continue borrowing her husband to tell his story, and soon enough Nigel is back in his confessional cabin, listening to the tale that is escalating in desperation and darkness. As these meetings continue, Oscar continually attempts to gauge and cultivate Nigel's attraction to Mimi, as well as to reconcile all that has transpired – the love and the boredom, the public humiliation and private agony, and, finally, the rampant, malicious gamesmanship. As Nigel's desire for Mimi grows, and Fiona's suspicions increase, Oscar's intentions remain as murky as Mimi's role in this intense, extremely personal game.
What makes Bitter Moon ultimately disturbing is the commonality just below the surface – this is a vision of relationships and domesticity that is exaggerated but certainly recognizable, I suspect, to most who have been in long-term relationships (communication failures, the ebb and flow of sexuality, arguments about clothing, pettiness, jealousy, ad nauseam). Satire and black comedy must contain this sort of truth or the works run the risk of venturing off into the fantastic and losing their edge; Polanski and his co-writers retain a sure hand throughout, even as Bitter Moon elevates its mordant game from sweetness to recrimination to violence. By the end of the film, most of the actions and events feel right – all have been taken to their (ill) logical extremes. Bitter Moon is jaundiced, bemused, but also quite wise – and thereby thoroughly entertaining and disconcerting.
Deeply hurt romantics always make the best cynics, and Coyote's Oscar is nicely wrought – veering from moon-eyed enthusiasm to the most wicked kind of cruel, his motivations with Mimi (in the flashbacks) are always apparent, even if he is an unlikable, pathetic figure. Seigner, all thick eyebrows, hips, and pouty insouciance, is also quite effective (if a tad overreaching) as both the alluring sex bomb and absolutely crushed woman who may just yet be reborn. (After all, it's really Coyote and Seigner's film, as Bitter Moon's flashback sequences make up the bulk of the picture.) Grant is used well as the proper, polite gentlemen (this was just before he stammered his way to stardom in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which also featured co-star Scott Thomas) whose initial reluctance is obliterated by curiosity. I only wish Scott Thomas, whose somewhat impenetrable demeanor is used to adequate effect, was given a bit more to do. There are also brief appearances by Stockard Channing and Victor Banerjee.
Lastly, I could not help but think of the parallels between Polanski's use of Seigner's physical charms with Coyote and Oscar's tempting of Nigel – self-loathing and confessional indeed, with no apparent desire for absolution.
Video: Presented in a clean anamorphic widescreen transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Bitter Moon appears good if not remarkable. The source print must have been in decent shape, as the film is noticeably free of any defects, and the transfer suffers only from some slight graininess. Flesh tones and blacks generally appear well rendered, and the cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli is (with a few exceptions) appropriately low-key.
Audio: Bitter Moon is presented in DD 2.0 stereo and is largely well rendered. Most of the dialogue is easy to hear, and the pleasant, yet unremarkable score by Vangelis is given a decent treatment. There is not much in the way of any aural fireworks here, but nothing to really complain about, either. The ship's horns, however, are mightily rendered.
Extras: The only extras on board are four trailers. Also included are English subtitles, which translate the brief French dialogue in French rather than English. The lack of extras is truly unfortunate – although I am certainly glad that Bitter Moon has been given an adequate treatment for DVD, some additional features would have been quite welcome.
Final Thoughts: Bitter Moon remains a unique, dark tale with absurdist leanings that largely rings true because it never loses it connection to recognizable, banal realities. It's nihilism works best as a perverse cautionary tale – one of possessiveness and destruction, of selfishness and selflessness, revenge, and of all-consuming desire. It's also a film that constantly threatens to go off the rails – there are certainly some nearly over the top sequences here – but it somehow never quite does. Although Bitter Moon is not the sort of film that one would recommend to casual friends (again, its wavelength is such that indifference is not really an option), it's a surprising, refreshingly frank and adult film that refuses to pull any of its punches. Highly recommended to Polanski fans and those willing to explore an unapologetic ride into some of the darker impulses of human nature and sexuality – otherwise, Bitter Moon is in pure rental territory.