Ever since I read Polanski: A Biography from Christopher Sandford, I’ve been entranced by Roman Polanski’s work. Little-by-little I’ve been watching many of his lesser known films, many of which I have yet to review for the site. Recently I did watch Bitter Moon which captures the nail-biting suspense and sexual discomfort found in many of his films.
Bitter Moon is one of those films that is disturbingly engaging. You want to look away from what you think is an terrible film, but instead, you have watched the trainwreck unfold. Just like an accident on the highway where everyone slows down to look at the wreck. You don’t want to see hurt or dead bodies, but you have to know what happens, you have to see it to believe it. With Bitter Moon, before you know it the film has ended, the popcorn bucket is empty and you’re left speechless.
Bitter Moon is about how Nigel (Hugh Grant) and his wife, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) meet Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) and her paraplegic American husband Oscar (Peter Coyote) on a cruise. Oscar lures Nigel into his cabin to reveal the long story involving him and Mimi, essentially reaching to how Oscar is now wheelchair bound and the truth behind his relationship with Mimi.
Only Roman Polanski can do that to you.
Nigel is subjected to this story, and just like the viewer, he wants to look away, but he can’t. Sometimes by force and sometimes by choice, Nigel keeps coming back. He is seduced by both Oscar and Mimi to listen to Oscar’s story. All the while he begins to alienate his wife, Fiona.
Polanski amps up the melodrama and lets the overacting reign throughout this film. This overacting is both hard to believe, yet the characterizations are certainly not miscast. Hugh plays his stereotypical character of a prim and proper British man, fumbling through his words and actions. Coyote’s portrayal of a broken-down writer, drunk, paraplegic is superbly evil, masochist and Misogynistic.
Then, there is Emmanuelle Seigner as Mimi, Polanski’s wife. I’m still back and forth on her performance. In some ways she was the worst actress, yet her character is also the most broken, the most affected, the least loved. The sadness is in her eyes. The coldness of her heart reflects in her facial features. I feel for this character. Yet, I know the tenants of acting are just not there. Again, another trainwreck in which I simply could not look away from.
Performances aside, Polanski offers many of his typical signatures, however he uses circles often. While the word “moon” is in the title of the film, this primary symbol is embedded into your consciousness immediately.
Polanski adorns the walls with circles. In the cabin we see the circular windows. One scene at a French restaurant there are circular mirrors that line the walls. I still can’t figure out what this use of circles symbolizes. Searches through Google reveal nothing regarding discussions of circles in this film. Perhaps, I’m alone with this inference.
My only guess is that these circles represent the “what comes around, goes around”. Oscar torments Mimi, Mimi then torments Oscar. Nigel alienates Fiona, Fiona then gets what Nigel has been wanting the entire time. Seriously, best I could do.
The score by Vangelis is one of the most haunting and suspenseful aspects of this film, and may be one of the most perfectly executed scores in all of Polanski’s films.
I’m certain that this film is a tragi-comedy when it comes down to the melodrama and sexuality. The dialogue, overacting, underacting, uncomfortable sex scenes—the recipe for a terrible film. No matter how you feel watching this film, you’ll never reach for the remote, always waiting for the next scene.