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‘Bitter Moon’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1994


Roman Polanski
Peter Coyote;
Hugh Grant;
Emmanuelle Seigner;
Kristin Scott-Thomas
Under 17 restricted

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Roman Polanski sets his latest anti-romantic opus of sexual obsession and cruelty aboard a claustrophobic cruise ship. But during 2 1/2 hours of choppy waters, soured love affairs and seasickly moods, the controversial director's Lust Boat becomes the Loathe Boat. By then, it's way too late for Dramamine.

As the ship of fools sails on, a smarmy, wheelchair-bound American (Peter Coyote) buttonholes Nigel (Hugh Grant), a proper English stranger, and begins to spin the tale -- in lascivious, lip-smacking, Penthouse Forum detail -- of his doomed marriage to French femme fatale Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner).

Fastidious to the point of fussiness, Grant is on a marriage-renewing trip to Bombay with Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas), his brittle wife of seven years, and tries to escape the ugly American. But he's perversely fascinated by the salacious story with its concupiscent cliff-hangers, and by Coyote's vampy wife, and falls into his unsavory web.

"You'd have made a good analyst," Coyote tells Grant. "Not many men would have listened to so much for so long."

Told in long flashbacks, Coyote's tale is a sticky mire of porno cliches. An American in Paris, Coyote models himself on Hemingway and Henry Miller -- if his overripe narration is an example of his writing, it's no wonder he's never published. ("I loved her, too, but our credit was running out -- we were headed for sexual bankruptcy.") Obsessed by the sight of Seigner pouting on a bus, he hunts her down, and after they resort to messy S/M games to spice up their fading romance, things get ugly. Here Polanski tries to top "9˝ Weeks": There's an embarrassing scene in which Seigner dribbles cream all over her breasts and Coyote licks it off, while George Michael croons "Faith." At a peak moment, the toaster pops. No kidding.

Eventually, the worm turns, Seigner becomes the torturer, and "Bitter Moon" becomes a gender-reversed version of the equally preposterous "Boxing Helena" before its inevitably distasteful conclusion.

Polanski turns up the transgressive, exhibitionistic heat by casting his gauche wife, 27-year-old Seigner, a blowzy, badly-painted replica of Brooke Shields, as the poison cookie. Convincingly obnoxious and unhealthy, Coyote resembles Matthew Modine gone to seed. The only survivor among this fearless crew is Grant, reprising the strained politesse that was so amusing in "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

"Bitter Moon" is based on a novel by Pascal Bruckner, but with its musty scenario of a dissolute middle-aged man and a clingy, devouring child-woman, 60-year-old co-writer/director/producer Polanski's film smacks of wish-fulfillment and self-justification. He's like one of those men's-magazine sexologists forever surfacing with research "proving" that monogamy and marriage are doomed to fail.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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