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BITTER MOON (director/writer/producer: Roman Polanski; screenwriters: Gerard Brach/John Brownjohn/ based on Lunes de Fiel by Pascal Bruckner; cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli; editors: Herve de Luze/Glenn Cunningham; music: Vangelis; cast: Peter Coyote (Oscar), Emmanuelle Seigner (Mimi), Hugh Grant (Nigel), Kristin Scott-Thomas (Fiona), Victor Banerjee (Mr. Singh), Stockard Channing (Beverly, literary agent), Sophie Patel (Amrita) Luca Vellani (Dado); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: R; Fine Line Features; 1992-UK/France-in English)
“Devilishly entertaining.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Roman Polanski’s seagoing ironical black comedy melodrama evokes memories of the landlocked but similarly corrosive Michael Nichol’s 1966 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.” The story is as choppy as the ocean voyage, filled with hack dialogue, lurid sex, overwrought melodrama and unpleasant characters without the sophisticated wit of the combatants in Edward Albee’s vitriolic play. The film’s setting in a boat and the dangerous emotional games played out reminds one also of Polanski’s 1962 Knife in the Water, the first of his feature films to be shown in America.

The film is based on Pascal Bruckner’s novel Lunes de Fiel and is co-scripted by Polanski, John Brownjohn, and his longtime European collaborator Gerard Brach. They worked together on the scripts for Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Tenant, Pirates, and Frantic.

Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), a proper wealthy English couple hiding their unhappiness with their British reserve, are on a sea cruise to India in celebration of their seventh wedding anniversary and to revive their floundering marriage. The priggish Nigel is befriended by the perverted and gabby almost forty year old American expatriate Oscar (Peter Coyote), a wheelchair-bound unpublished novelist traveling with his sexy much younger French dancer wife, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner-the real-life wife of Polanski). The bitter but always smiling Oscar insists on telling Nigel his lurid life story to its conclusion and how his wife made him a cripple, as he gathers he’s a good listener and is hot over the voluptuous Mimi–an erotic dancer working the cruise– and therefore he will make for a good audience as the promise is there that she can be his for the asking. Oscar encourages the romance, bemoaning that he’s come to accept that he’s half a man.

The story takes days to tell as it goes into flashback, often with graphic sexual encounters, as Coyote provides the kinky details in his voiceover. Oscar starts out waxing poetic about his complete love for Mimi, a waitress who is an aspiring dancer he made contact with on a Paris bus and instantly fell in love with. Oscar is living a dissolute life in Paris, trying to write his Ernest Hemingway masterpiece while living off a family trust fund. But he has become so obsessed with the beautiful woman’s perfect looks that he spends all his spare time tracking her down and when he connects he finds heavenly bliss in her beauty, freshness, and unabashed mixture of innocence and raw sexuality. The indignant but captivated Nigel listens intently in Oscar’s cabin while Fiona stews why he spends so much time away and wonders what went wrong with their marriage.

In the flashback, Oscar’s heavenly romance turns sour when he has too much of Mimi’s love and feels they should go out and see friends for a change. Things take a turn for the worse when Mimi becomes jealous that he’s taking an interest in one of her dancing classmates, so she gets the well-built black dancer in her class to do an erotic dance with her and waltzes off to his place afterwards to spend the night. This scene makes the jealous Oscar leave the club without her and changes their blissful merger forever. When she begs to not be kicked out of the apartment and he reluctantly accepts her back, their relationship experiences a shift in control as he now wields the power and the relationship turns sadistic built on extremes of passion and cruelty. All that’s left now are a series of unsavory reminisces, as Oscar describes all the ways he demeaned Mimi, their S&M trysts, her abortion without his presence or concern, and his time consuming womanizing fervor that made him give up even pretending to be a writer or believe in an ideal romance anymore.

Polanski treats the love story as a cruel game, as through the variety of ways the couple perceived their love for each other is presented as the way love varies among many couples. The manipulative Oscar and the temperamental Mimi are viewed as tragic figures who impulsively lost something so precious few ever experience. The unconventional director, who likes thumbing his nose at others, takes delight in the way the one with the upper hand can make the other suffer and get a perverse sense of enjoyment from that. It’s a wicked depiction of love, one that in all its kinkiness still has a thread of truth that is disturbing. Some might find this as a guilty pleasure, others will be turned off by the degrading way it explores romance, but I found it devilishly entertaining and in its serious moments it shows how the couple’s twisted love can so readily entrap a repressed unaware couple that comes into contact with them.