Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 83 (A-)
Like many New Hollywood era directors, Roman Polanski spent much of the 80s scrambling to keep his career alive. From his exile in Europe to the debacle of Pirates to Frantic’s disappointment at the box office, it wasn’t a particularly kind decade for the director. Polanski even got a shot at his pet project, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita (which Polanski claims was the best script he ever wrote), only to see the funding disappear. But the director wasn’t completely defeated: his next project, 1992’s Bitter Moon, saw some of his most vibrant work since Chinatown and The Tenant. The film wasn’t a financial success, but it showed that Polanski wasn’t as finished as some might have thought.
Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) are an exceedingly milquetoast British couple who go on a cruise for their anniversary. There, they meet another couple: Oscar (Peter Coyote), a chain-smoking paraplegic, and Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), his much younger wife. Oscar regales the story of his strange relationship with Mimi to Nigel, who’s increasingly enticed by the mysterious woman. Oscar and Mimi’s tale was one of sadomasochism in increasingly extreme forms, with Oscar abusing the dependent Mimi until their situation reversed after Oscar’s crippling accident. Their strange relationship then begins to affect Nigel and Fiona, whose marriage perhaps isn’t as happy as they had thought.
The film shares more than a few similarities with Polanski’s masterful debute Knife in the Water (setting on a ship, a relationship strained by a variable, heightened sexuality), but Bitter Moon shows Polanski taking his aesthetic to a nastier extreme not seen since The Tenant. The film has noir-ish overtones combined with a Hitchcockian thriller, but Polanski pushes the film into a tongue-in-cheek softcore haze (complete with a hilariously cheesy Vangelis theme) that culminates in a scene where Seigner pours milk over her breasts to the tune of George Michael’s “Faith”. Odd as it may be, it’s a way for Polanski to lull the audience in a feeling of comfort (“it’s camp”, one might say), combined with the ridiculous softcore haze and Coyote’s hilariously overwritten narration (the character is supposed to be a hack writer, and it shows in the best way). But it’s only to thrash them into uncomfortable territory of Coyote wearing a pig mask and crawling on all fours, Seigner taking Coyote’s razor a bit too close to his privates, a thankfully only told and not shown story involving urine, and the intense emotional cruelty the two characters inflict on each other in the flashbacks. It’s some sick gamesmanship, but one in tune to Polanski’s wavelength will no doubt have blast.
Polanski’s wife was the weak link of Frantic, and she’s the closest thing to a weak link here as well. Seigner doesn’t have the range (at least in English) to capture Mimi’s intense emotions, but she’s far more effective when called to vamp or pose: Mimi is objectified by the characters, and since Polanski’s films are all about characters’ perspectives, it mostly works. Thankfully, the other three leads are all far more game: Thomas and Grant are strong as the almost ridiculously British couple (the reaction shots of Grant’s visible discomfort are particularly fun), and Coyote kills as the comically sleazy Oscar. One might wish to see what James Woods would have done with the role had he stayed on, but Coyote brings his own strengths here as an aspiring Hemingway who’s a lot closer to dime store pulp novel writers.
Polanski has always had a gift with using deep focus, and Bitter Moon is no exception. When Nigel and Fiona are situated around Oscar, Polanski brings out their discomfort while showing Oscar’s gleeful control over their emotions. His use of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America in the background of one scene is a rather smart way to highlight Oscar and Mimi’s abusive relationship. When Mimi reveals to Oscar that she’s pregnant, Polanski drags out the tension and slowly brings the characters closer together as Oscar briefly shows some empathy towards his long-suffering lover. Particularly great is a scene after Oscar has been crippled: he’s taking a bath, and Mimi leaves him to answer the phone…for quite a long time. Polanski focuses on the dismissive Mimi as Oscar emerges in the background, slowly crawling from the bathroom to the bedroom, just trying to get by. It’s a great way to show how the power situation between the two has changed, and Polanski’s films are all, to some degree, about power.
In this case, Polanski views love as a strong, passionate, hazy infatuation that’s powerful but short. When it fades, the two disparate personalities either stop at the peak or start to battle for who’s dominant and who’s submissive in a relationship. Oscar tells Mimi what to wear and what not to wear, and she breaks down, dependent on him. He puts down her cooking. He has open affairs. And even when the tables turn and Mimi starts to emotionally abuse the Oscar, one can’t help but feel empathy towards the previously unsympathetic man. It’s an extreme form of sadomasochism, but Polanski’s very incisive at showing how an extreme relationship can mirror a milder one like Nigel and Fiona’s, whose complacence finally falls away as they start to bicker over Nigel’s infatuation with Mimi. The film builds to a classic Polanski conclusion that shows how even a previously stable relationship can be permanently shaken. There’s no answer as to whether or not Nigel and Fiona can continue, but it’s a hard world out there, and Polanski’s pessimism seems appropriate.
NOTE: Sorry for the wait. I'm going to try to finish these over the next week or two, and then I'll move onto the next director for November/December.
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