If the Manson Family hadn't stumbled across Sharon Tate, maybe Roman Polanski would be making movies for the Disney Channel. As it is, this once-fascinating artiste of the cinema has turned his personal life into a trashy novel and his mercifully infrequent movies into guided tours of his own sour brain waves.
Meanwhile, despite what the religious right and other nuisances tell us, a little softcore pornography never hurt any grown-up with an IQ higher than room temperature. Bitter Moon, Polanski's latest dip into the sexual netherworld, features various seductions, copulations and spankings with latex novelties. Big deal. The real problem with good old Roman is that he keeps pasting pseudopsychological pretense and quasi-intellectual fads onto what is essentially fairly moist smut.
Clearly, he wants us to believe he's some kind of deep thinker instead of Europe's best-known child molester.
At least Bitter Moon features a fun couple. Oscar (Peter Coyote) is a kind of cut-rate, latter-day Henry Miller, trying to relive the old Paris-lit myth on a trust fund. Truth is, he bangs out purple prose that no one will publish and drinks about three quarts of whiskey a day. Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, the current Mrs. P.) is a ripe young French dancer. They meet on the Number 96 bus, and their "relationship" moves with predictable swiftness from carnal rapture to sly gamesmanship to degradation, mutual loathing and violence. Everything's fastened up with a little psychopathic dependence.
Welcome back to Polanski Park, Repulsion fans.
We see Oscar and Mimi's considerable troubles--all 139 minutes of them--in flashbacks. That's because, as the film opens, our blathering would-be novelist, now an impotent cynic slumped in a wheelchair, has cornered a hopelessly square Englishman named Nigel (Hugh Grant) in the middle of a Black Sea crossing. Right. Oscar insists on telling Mr. Button-Up everything. Ten minutes in, the poor repressed Brit doesn't mind listening. After all, he's caught sight of steamy Mimi slinking through the bar in a red velvet dress that would properly fit, say, a nine-year-old.
There's just one stumbling block, really: Nigel's desiccated, childless wife, Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas), has tagged along on the cruise. Pity, old chap. Steady on.
Polanski shows us sundry intimacies and cheap thrills while droning on in his dark, Eastern European way about the awful things people can do to each other when passion goes wrong. He spackles a little black humor over the whole business, proving what a sophisticate he is at heart. The finale is a drunken New Year's Eve party. While the ship tosses symbolically on heavy seas, we get dirty dancing, multiple barfing, funny hats, confusion about who will sleep with whom and--of course--gunfire.
Certain far-flung professors may detect in Bitter Moon the dark toxins that corrupt the furthest edges of human obsession. Something like that, anyway. Fine. But if your fraud-detector is working, you might instead find yourself wishing that Polanski would cut the crap and return quietly to his rubber room for another six years.