Bitter Moon

Bitter Moon

***1/2

Reviewed by: James Benefield

Described by critics on its release as lurid, self-indulgent melodrama, Polanski’s Bitter Moon fares somewhat better on reappraisal. Its once shocking sexual content has hardly become family viewing, but in a post-Irreversible world, it’s pretty tame, and surprisingly funny. In some ways it's like the film in general; it’s a naughty but nice trashy treat.

Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas play a middle-class British husband and wife who become acquainted with a mysterious, and a little odd, couple: wheelchair-using American wannabe writer Oscar (Peter Coyote) and a seemingly coy, French dancer, Mimi (Emanuelle Seigner) on a ship to Istanbul. One night Grant is taken aside by Oscar, who tells the story of how he and his other half have ended up on the ship. Starting from a chance meeting on a bus in Paris, the story takes in this unlikely pairing’s exploits and sexploits. Grant is initially flustered, then ever more intrigued.

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Although there is more sex here than usually occurs in one of his films, this is still classic Polanski. Unhinged characters with questionable, and ambiguous, motives in a claustrophobic environment, punctuated by savage violence and macabre undertones. However, there is a sense of humour here not so clearly present in earlier films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and Repulsion. It’s something that Polanski hasn’t really followed up on since, which is a shame. He’s having fun here, letting his directorial hair down, and the result is supremely entertaining.

It captures a moment in some of its actors' careers which has not since been repeated. It features Hugh Grant pre Four Weddings, when his flustered Englishman schtick hadn’t become a money spinner. We get Emanuelle Seignier before she became engulfed by typecasting and also Kristin Scott Thomas (even if she is criminally underused here) when she was a relative unknown, pre-English Patient. Aside from the gnarled presence of Coyote, the fresh-faced nature of the cast makes the ensuing depravity even more delicious.

Of course, the movie’s indulgences are also its weaknesses. The flashbacks sequences take up more than an half of the running time, and could easily have been a feature in their own right. They do sit awkwardly in terms of narrative tone and pacing, feeling clumsily integrated into the ‘present day’ world of the film. The increasing lurid nature of proceedings give the story a soap opera like feel, which unfortunately does not pay off at the denouement. Instead of a fiendish, explosive ending, the ‘shocking’ events of the final minutes come across as slightly trashy and cheap.

Although Bitter Moon is by no means Polanski’s finest hour, it’s an enjoyably salacious, seedy experience. Although it eventually succumbs to its own indulgences, it’s well worth a watch.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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An Englishman gets more than he bargained for when an American on his cruise ship offers to tell him the story of his relationship with a beautiful but dangerous woman.
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Director: Roman Polanski

Writer: Gérard Brach, John Brownjohn

Starring: Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Peter Coyote, Victor Banerjee, Sophie Patel, Luca Vellani

Year: 1992

Runtime: 139 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, UK, US

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