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‘Bitter Moon’

By Desson Howe
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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Seen as the bizarre, seat-of- the-pants endeavor it is, Roman Polanski's "Bitter Moon" is good for a howl or two. A sort of seagoing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," it's about the romantic Sturm und Drang that rages among cruise passengers Hugh Grant, Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner and Kristin Scott-Thomas.

By turns funny, brilliant, shocking and downright terrible, this choppy, two-hour-plus voyage is for Polanski aficionados who don't mind watching their favorite, aging enfant terrible going gleefully under.

There seems to be a joke to all this, but it's not clear what the punch line is: Has Polanski had it with Hollywood, or the creative process, or even his wife, Seigner? Is he just a dirty old man rallying himself creatively, in the spirit of the Marquis de Sade? Or did he -- midway through this project -- realize how difficult it is to interweave humor and drama (especially with less-than-assured Seigner in a principal role) and allow himself the ultimate artistic pleasure of self-sabotage?

When priggish British couple Nigel (Grant) and Fiona (Scott-Thomas) take a cruise to the Orient, the idea is to breathe magic back into the seven-year-old marriage. Not so fast, English People: This is a Polanski movie. Nigel is immediately badgered by fellow passenger Oscar (Coyote), a wheelchair-using American novelist, who insists on regaling the uptight Englishman with passionate stories about his vampy wife, Mimi (Seigner).

Oscar (if he is telling the truth) has quite a tale to tell -- a "Last Tango in Paris" shaggy dog of romantic obsession, kinky sex and protracted enmity.

As Nigel hears about games with pig masks and leather G-strings, he becomes predictably charged. It's just a matter of time before he's taking every opportunity to slip away from Fiona to hear the whole thing. Oscar's descriptions (which the audience sees in extended, graphic flashbacks) also cause Nigel to feel passionately drawn to Mimi, a woman who seems tragic, seductive and in need of tenderness.

There's much more to this picture, as Oscar's narrative reveals. Polanski, who scripted the shenanigans with European script doctor Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, revels in his usual themes and trickery. "Moon," like most of his films, is about multiple levels of entrapment: Everyone seems to be enslaved by themselves and each other. Of course, they're all stuck at sea too. And ultimately, no one is what he seems.

Above all, "Moon" is abundant with horseplay, as the Polish director rolls out his array of shock tactics and black humor. At the height of a steamy encounter between Oscar and Mimi (which involves tongues, bodies and a creamy bottle of milk), something happens abruptly -- which causes audience members to jump, then laugh at themselves for doing so. After 36 years of making movies, Polanski may be off his creative rocker, but he's still having fun.

"Bitter Moon" is rated R and contains graphic sexual scenes, shock tactics and really bad lines.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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