I'm a huge fan of Polanski, but, for me, 'Bitter Moon' is one of his least successful films. In at least two respects it's a retelling of the impeccable 'Knife in the Water'. Both the matter of the cuckolded husband and the issue of old versus young man orbiting a young woman are dealt with deftly and with dignity in Polanski's earlier masterpiece. Though 'Bitter Moon' is more ambitious in its scope, it fails in important ways to have the durability and dramatic potency of the earlier film. Firstly, there's the matter of the ideological canvas. The relationship between Oscar (Peter Coyote), the failed writer (and present Ancient Mariner figure, compelled to tell his story) and his younger wife, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) is predicated on an idea of desire, albeit expressed knowingly and necessarily ironically in writerly hyperbole, that is divested of all but a primitive and, ultimately, narcissistic design. The idea of lust as a trajectory that ends up manifesting nothing but an equation of power and an endless chain of metonymy is an interesting and time-honoured one. However, those vignettes of this supposed, rocket-fuelled eroticism that are on offer convey nothing of the charge that is evoked by the teller of the tale. Maybe this is intentional and the question of distance between fact and fantasy is ever in play. Similarly we are meant to suspend disbelief and gather a sense of erotic charge between Mimi and Nigel (Hugh Grant). This, however, is equally seriously lacking. Maybe Ralph Fiennes or even Colin Firth would have been better choices for the bumbling Englishman with stereotypical inhibition and a latent sting in his tail. It's not that Grant doesn't fit the bill or fail to convince that he has lead in his pencil; it's more perhaps a problem with his opposite character. Seigner has to smoulder in a siren-like way that she probably never could quite manage to represent; she appears as a misty-eyed vampish figure who is peculiarly of her time. Her attraction is unfortunately date-specific or perhaps the power which might emerge from this phenomenon as I perceived it has yet to arise at a future time when the late 80s/early 90s aesthetic is revisited. Seigner's delivery of her lines and performance in the bar scene are very good, but in the many sotto voce encounters in the corridor of power her charms are less apparent. The penultimate lesbian dancing scene between Mimi and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) is embarrassing. The conceit of two women finding mutual passion and becoming the ultimate, straight, erotic spectacle is hackneyed and, certainly in this case, unconvincing. However wide-eyed Coyote's Oscar and Grant's Nigel may be, Scott-Thomas's Fiona getting it on with Seigner's Mimi just doesn't cut it. The film is meant to be a tragedy and has all the traditional elements in place. However, it fails to transport to either highs or lows or insights. Whilst I could understand how depravity had led to ruin, and that the presence of the other had become unbearable, I couldn't finally believe that not a shred of life-affirming humanity remained. I suppose 'Secretary' is the antidote to this film and that I end up on the side of romance. It occurs that, in this respect, 'Bitter Moon' is Polanski's bleakest film and that its artistic integrity is thus intact. But there's something about the mismatch between dialogue and character and/or between actor and role. It simply doesn't gel; it is forever jarring one into the kind of responsiveness Nigel has initially for Oscar. Maybe it's the rhythms and cadences: the lack of poetry. Oscar, as ancient mariner, as narrator and failed writer, evokes neither a Sargasso Sea nor a crossbow and albatross convincingly. And there's the rub - and maybe the whole point of the film.
Time Out saysLike Polanski's debut feature Knife in the Water, this is set partly on a boat, and charts the shifts in power between characters performing complex sexual/emotional manoeuvres. Nigel (Grant) and Fiona (Scott-Thomas), a wealthy English couple on a second honeymoon, meet Oscar (Coyote) and Mimi (Seigner) on a Mediterranean cruise. The wheelchair-bound Oscar is determined to regale Nigel with a lurid tale of his awful love for Mimi, and exploits her charms to ensure that Nigel hears the story to its bitter end. Characteristically, Polanski treats this slightly protracted tale of erotic obsession partly as deeply ironic black comedy. But there's also real seriousness in the way the film condenses a whole range of feelings into one crazed, cruel relationship and its effect on another couple, so that it becomes both a grotesque portrait of love's variety and a queasy commentary on the perverse pleasures we derive from the suffering of others. Rich and darkly disturbing, it's also wickedly entertaining.