In a nutshell: camp, ridiculous but very watchable
Popcorn rating: 3/5
You may think you know Roman Polanski from such films as Chinatown and The Pianist. If you do, then watching Bitter Moon will fill you with a growing sense of disbelief – what on earth was he thinking? Bitter Moon is a puzzle: did Polanski intentionally set out to make such a complete howler – a thoroughly camp riposte to arthouse fare such as Last Tango In Paris and The Night Porter; or did the material simply get the better of him – did he want out to make a dark tale of amour fou only to have it blow up in his face?
A young English couple, Nigel and Fiona meet the wheelchair-bound American writer, Oscar, and his voluptuous young, French wife Mimi on a cruise. With a plot reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, Nigel and Fiona get increasingly sucked into Oscar and Mimi’s dark, sado-masochistic world, ultimately with tragic results. The general narrative tone is all over the place: one minute Peter Coyote as Oscar is wistfully recounting his move to Paris, the next he’s Benny Hill on crystal meth, a leering caricature of middle-aged lust. Meanwhile Mimi, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, frantically munches the scenery like Jessica Rabbit channelling Zola’s Therese Raquin. As Fiona, Kristin Scott-Thomas manages to retain a level of dignity conspicuously lacking elsewhere in the film, but Hugh Grant’s Nigel is simply a reminder that it’s taken the Leveson Enquiry to finally move his public profile on from the kind of bumbling stereotype he so effortlessly displays here.
Some of the scenes are a hoot: there’s an ‘erotic’ breakfast encounter between Oscar and Mimi that has to be seen to be believed, with a pop-up toaster punchline reminiscent of Morcambe & Wise; and the climactic New Year’s Eve party on the cruise ship is more like a tawdry office do, with Mimi’s expressive dancing-in-a-circle turn rivalling David Brent’s for its banality. In fact the whole setting of the cruise is suspect, as it more closely resembles some grim, extended North Sea ferry-crossing than a luxury excursion.
This is all so comprehensively wrong that it exerts a kind of magnetic pull – you can’t help but stay glued to it to see what horrors Polanski can come up with next. The imminent UK release of Carnage suggests that he’s actually perfectly at home doing comedy, but with Bitter Moon you’re never certain of his intentions, and whether or not they match the outcome. It might well be his all time career blip (personal issues aside), but it’s worth a punt for its sheer, perverse entertainment value.
Reviewer: Tom Ridge