The argument that frequently surrounds artists with controversial personal lives is that if the work remains of high quality, then one should be able to dismiss what they do outside their creations and still appreciate what they've made. That's much easier to do when the work doesn't remind one of their questionable acts outside the creative space, especially with the great director Roman Polanski: despite the troubling accusations against him, one can still appreciate the heavy hitters of his oeuvre -- Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, Chinatown, many others -- largely because they don't remind one of his possible transgressions. That becomes more difficult when watching something like Bitter Moon, a nebulous erotic drama where a struggling writer almost at his 50s falls for a much younger, sexually insatiable girl … and much of the film focuses on their physical activity. Had there been a stronger point, perhaps Bitter Moon could've overcome its inherent obstacles, but the excess of it all works against that happening.
The activities of Bitter Moon occur on a cruise liner traveling the Mediterranean, at first focused on a fairly buttoned-up British couple, Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas). They stumble upon a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) in distress, Mimi, who later resurfaces in a little black dress and all done up as if nothing had been wrong with her … and ends up tantalizing Nigel at a bar. Shortly after, Nigel bumps into a man in a wheelchair, Oscar (Peter Coyote), who asserts that he has all the info about the woman, his travel companion, and he then tells him the long, complicated story about how their relationship developed. Bitter Moon then operates almost entirely on flashbacks as Nigel listens to their story, which takes them through romance, breakups, violence, infidelity, and some very detailed and graphic descriptions of their sex life. Amid all this, Nigel starts to become intrigued by Mimi, challenging his fidelity to his wife as he learns more about her lascivious escapades with Oscar.
It's tough to talk about the deeper issues with Bitter Moon's vicarious fantasies and erotic impulses without knocking into a few spoilers, so proceed with caution. There's a moment early on, before any of the raunchy stuff, that immediately tipped me off to the possibility that this voyage into Polanski's psyche might get a little rocky. After giving up on his lengthy search for Mimi in these flashbacks, who was then just a girl he nonverbally helped on a bus, Oscar spots a stunner of a more mature-looking woman -- Playboy alum Nathalie Galan -- at work in a shop window, which transitions to them going out on a date. Yet, once he conveniently catches sight of his young infatuation on that first date, he immediately drops the woman, literally scrambles to Mimi, and professes his unyielding passion for her … and she reciprocates. Shortly after, his voiceover begins explaining how he finds her childlike innocence attractive, which brings out some of the weird tones in Polanski's film: Oscar's desire for this young girl overpowered any desires for this other woman closer to his level of adulthood, and his verbalization of fixating on her childlike qualities reinforces that.
Had that been all there was to those intimate aspects in Bitter Moon, maybe it could've faded into the background of their complicated developing relationship, but that's not what the film wants to do. The scenes that follow toe the line separating erotica and something more explicitly softcore, with lingering camera shots on Mimi's nude body as she disrobes for the first time, teasingly dances in front of Oscar, even sensually lets milk dribble out of her mouth and onto her chest for her to rub all over herself … and that's before things get, uh, truly kinky. Polanski communicated to Peter Coyote -- included in an interview on the Blu-ray -- that the difference between erotica and pornography is that erotica is like using a feather, while pornography's using the whole chicken. Well, Bitter Moon hits somewhere in the middle by using a few thighs, breasts, and other things, all to plainly indulgent degrees that bequeath the older gentlemen with wish fulfillment. These lurid overtures suppress any genuine character studies that might've come from the scenario, shaping into pervy fantasy above something more cerebral in the vein of Lynch or Cronenberg.
After seeing the rest of Bitter Moon, one could argue that these memories, stories, and possible embellishments are all part of the plan and supposed to be the failed writer waxing poetic about their lifestyle before their relationship soured, their innocence lost. For as explicitly titillating as it can be in the early parts of their story, Polanski swings to the opposite side of provocation with how their relationship nosedives to the crippled state they're at now, resulting in some exceptionally nasty, outright harmful actions and attitudes that aren't pleasurable to watch, at all. What's frustrating about all this is that Bitter Moon thrives off the raw incitement of the audience and not for any reason or building toward any well-defined purpose, other than as a portrait of what can happen when certain carnal boundaries are demolished -- instead of bent or occasionally crossed -- and how ugly people can become when they simply cannot get their way. The performances from Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner lean on a pulp-novel attitude instead of a genuine drama, which doesn't help matters.
What does work in Bitter Moon can be found in Hugh Grant's character, Nigel: how a reasonably young, straight-laced married man from England struggles with what to feel, and which ways to respond, as he deciphers these lurid stories in his mind and forms his impressions of Mimi. His reactions will often mirror those of the audience, filled with confusion, frustration with the storyteller, yet despite all that still a yearning to know more about the mysterious girl at the heart of these wild tales and their thoroughly screwed-up dynamic. The twisted destinations reached by Roman Polanski may make some degree of sense, yet the purposes behind Oscar's motivations for drawing Nigel into his life history reek of sadistic excess, laced inside an attempt at capturing a tragic portrait of lost souls. Sure, Bitter Moon certainly succeeds in making one endure a wide range of sensations from start to finish, but outside of instilling a more cautious perspective on intimacy and trusting the manipulation of strangers, the experience ends on a hollow, nihilistic note that makes one reconsider Polanski's intents for crafting it.
Video and Audio:
While it wouldn't exactly be fair to hold up the likes of Chinatown or Rosemary's Baby to see how prior Roman Polanski films have looked on Blu-ray in comparison to Bitter Moon, it wouldn't be unreasonable to hold other ‘90s films or even Polanski's own Frantic against it as a litmus test. Under either circumstance, one will discover that this HD transfer obtained by Kino, while correctly framed at 1.85:1 and holding quite a few solid merits, shows the tell-tale signs of being an older and somewhat neglected master that would greatly benefit from a clean-up job. Certain moments that engage the depth of the image are quite satisfying, actually, embracing the contours of the human body with a firm grasp on color gradation and an effective focus on fine details. In general, however, the image tends to be relatively flat, sporting bulky digital grain and more than a few instances of observable print imperfections. Luckily, the colors are mostly quite good throughout and the textures of clothes, liquids, and food items are convincing enough, forming into a suitable HD presentation.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is something of a mixed bag. On the surface, the cleanliness of details in the sound can be impressive, stretching into both side channels with chatter at dining-room tables, navigating the streets of Paris during flashbacks, and the rushing waters of the sea outside the boat. Verbal clarity is strong on the higher end, capably supporting the enunciation of dialogue, though midrange or lower bass struggles with a lack of heft throughout. A few sounds, like the thud of a body on the floor and the sound of a knock on a door, telegraph enough bass response to acknowledge their presence. The top-end seems incredibly bright, though, where voices -- especially High Grant -- sound higher than they possibly should be, and the absence of bass in certain scenes, especially with heavy crashing waves against the boat, are lackluster. Still, though, Bitter Moon does what it needs to do on the sound front, accompanied by English subtitles.
An Audio Commentary with Film Historian Troy Howarth pleads its case at the very beginning: this is a brilliant film, and Howarth really hopes that his insights will be able to persuade others to that. Perhaps that effort didn't work for me, but one can applaud the compilation of research he's gathered and his enthusiasm for the subject. He delves into Polanski's not-so-romantic perspective of Paris and the deliberateness of the exaggerated tones in the film, while offering textbook insights into the actors' careers before and after the film. Howarth also tends to restate what's going on during the film with slightly more attention to detail, including mild insights here and there about how to decipher visual cues and how to not take some of Polanski's cinematic tricks at face value. His interpretations of things like red dresses and numerical inclusions are interesting, if overly extrapolated, and the track proves to be measuredly illuminating in doses.
More interesting, however, is the Interview with Peter Coyote (25:21, 16x9 HD). Coyote braves the territory by chatting about his personal experiences with Polanski during the shooting, to which he very candidly tells interesting stories about his own context at the time: his divorce, how having a new girlfriend impacted shooting on the set, how the director enriched the actor's experiences in the Parisian culture, and the unexpected importance of Hugh Grant to the film's creation. A series of Trailers, including one for Bitter Moon, have also been included.
From his early classics to contemporary films like Ghost Writer and Carnage, Roman Polanski has continued to craft tense, expressive cinema across a wide spectrum of genres, mostly hovering in the relationship and suspense/thriller spectrum. They work, under most circumstances, because they don't remind one of Polanski's troubling backstory, and that's where Bitter Moon struggles. An allegoric, erotic and psychological thriller hinged on an older man's obsession and eventual mistreatment of a young girl, the film's proximity to softcore erotica complicates the narrative's underlying ambitions about the loss of innocence and the dangers of manipulation. Moreover, this excess rarely his any genuinely satisfying notes, making it seems as if its intentions are actually more on the surface. Kino's Blu-ray looks and sounds alright enough, though not without flaws, and the commentary and interview are decent enough to justify a Rental for this one.