There is an easy way to tell if a movie that is breaking sexual taboos. Sex scenes that don’t work make people laugh. Sex scenes that do work make them squirm. Bitter Moon fits comfortably into the latter. I saw this movie back in 1994 with a theater of about 150 people, a third of which were gone by the time the first hour was up. This is an uncomfortable movie, a movie that opts for weird sexual practices from people who have replaced love for lust. Does it surprise anyone that it comes from Roman Polanski?
Bitter Moon looks, for all the world, like trashy melodrama. It juggles bad taste and sexual intrigue but it doesn’t do it in a juvenile way with bad laughs. It does so in a mature way and builds it on a story about people not plotting. It is an exploration of whether or not two damaged people can work out their inner demons through sexual cohabitation or whether such a scenario will destroy them as human beings.
It begins on a cruise ship with Nigel (Hugh Grant) a bitter Englishman who is married to Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas) a cold and distant prude. One night at the bar Nigel meets a gorgeous French woman named Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner). Naturally, he is intoxicated by her – she’s a ball of sexual fire that works in contrast to Fiona’s icy demeanor.
A short time later he meets her alcoholic husband Oscar (Peter Coyote) who is confined to a wheelchair. He begins to tell Nigel the long story of how he and Mimi met. Spinning a tale from which Nigel is only held by the presence of Mimi, their story begins with a simple love story, how they met, and fell in lust with one another. Their sex life was robust and deliciously kinky with all manner of weird scenarios and sex shop implements that such activities are heir to. After a while, of course, they got bored, locked themselves away and began a bizarre, kinky S&M roleplay that got more and more serious until Oscar ended up in that wheelchair. This is the template for most of Bitter Moon. The relationship is built on destruction and the frothy kinks that cannot be sustained.
Naturally, Nigel is fascinated by the story of Oscar and Mimi and he makes excuses to Fiona so that he can spend more time with the couple (Mimi more than Oscar). He likes their story but we suspect that something may be afoot, that Nigel may be part of another con, another sex game established by this odd couple that may get him into trouble.
Bitter Moon is overly sexual, trashy, kinky, freaky and uncomfortable. In anyone else hands that might be a bad thing but in the hands of Roman Polanski we expect a degree of quality control. He is, and always has been, the master of his instrument and his achievement here is the ability to create this kind of bizarro sex tragedy and never make it laughable.
That works mainly because of the casting. Hugh Grant is wonderful as the kind of meek, mild fellow who probably thinks about sex but never acts on impulse. He’s married to Fiona (Kristen Scott-Thomas) who offers little sexual energy and allows us to understand why Nigel is so intrigued by the couple.
Peter Coyote has always been a mature, fearless actor with a slightly scary voice whose words in this films slither through his teeth with a kind of slippery anger. He informs Nigel that: “Everyone has a sadistic streak, and nothing brings it out better than the knowledge you’ve got someone at your mercy.” The best performance in the film, however, belongs to (Emmanuelle Seigner) as Mimi. She gives the kind of lurid performance that could illicit bad laughs like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Madonna in the godawful Body of Evidence. She is better than either by making her sexuality come from within and not wearing as a costume role. She’s gorgeous and mysterious and plays a rube like Nigel like a pinball machine.
Bitter Moon is a trashy film but a good one. Polanski is willing to go over the line with lurid melodrama and he doesn’t lose his nerve. He is brave filmmaker. Even braver is Emmanuel Seigneir (Polanski’s wife) who is required to do things in this film that many actresses wouldn’t touch for fear of their reputation. She does them and never backs off. ‘Bitter Moon’, like ‘Damage’ is a movie for adults. Both films speak about sex in a mature fashion without compromise.