Roman Polanski Takes Hugh Grant on a Dark Trip in Brazen Neo-noir Thriller.



“Do you know the difference between eroticism and pornography?  Eroticism is when you use a feather.  Pornography is when you use the whole chicken.”  That quote comes to us by way of Peter Coyote at the very start of his 2019 video interview supplement on this special edition Blu-ray of Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon.  The quote was also, according to the actor, the very start of his own relationship with the revered and infamous filmmaker.  Considering his approach to the content of this most charged of early-1990s neo-noirs, the question, in all its directness, is nothing if not apt.  Bitter Moon is several things, one of them most undeniably being “erotic”.

At first, Bitter Moon seems to be a standard-issue case of an unwitting common stooge (a babyfaced Hugh Grant) being seduced and taken in by an infectiously sexy femme fatale (Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner).  And, that wouldn’t technically be incorrect.  But there’s a certain decompressed sideways approach to that, as Bitter Moon turns out to be primarily comprised of another man’s flashbacks; the femme fatale’s wheelchair-bound husband (Peter Coyote).  This is Oscar, a failed writer with a chip on his shoulder claiming he’s only looking to warn of his wife’s gruesomely predatory ways.  But there is, inevitably, more to Oscar than this.

While Coyote receives top billing for carrying this rather lavish opus, its Seigner who, on screen, truly makes it what it is. Playing a down-on-her-luck dancer, Polanski makes no effort to temper his fixation with her mystique.  Seigner as Mimi is a feral beauty, untamable in her erotic attacks.  The actress seems to know no boundaries, perhaps enabling the controversial director’s vision into actuality.  Without her full-on commitment to this over-the-top vision, Bitter Moon doesn’t work.  Mimi and Oscar, though operating on different tracks, make it their goal to corrupt the re-connection cruise vacation of the British bland every-couple Nigel and Fiona, played by Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Veering into spoiler territory, there are aspects of Bitter Moon’s later developments that don’t sit particularly well.  It is, in the end, the sheer uncompromising magnitude of Polanski’s narrative perversion that, if not salvages things, maintains them. Following a surprise pregnancy that Oscar pressures her into terminating, Mimi then falls into a downward spiral straight out of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1986 meandering French opus, Betty Blue.  The abortion leaves her unable to have children, a breaking point in Mimi’s own whore/mother dichotomy, which has reached the end of its collective road.  With both her sexuality and her potential motherhood nullified, she withdraws into self-mutating depression, going as far as to crop her beautiful hair into a shaggy, uneven, hand-shorn mop.  For a character whose entire value both in the film and for the film rests in her radiated sexuality, this is the ultimate shorthand that she’s badly gone around the bend.

All of this also happens in Beineix’s Betty Blue (recently made available on disc from Criterion), the similarities to which are downright uncanny.  It is truly as though Polanski saw that film, deemed it flawed but not worthless, and decided that what it really needed was a good dark neo-noir twist.  Sans that infusion, the Oscar/Mimi story exactly follows the beats of Betty Blue.  One needn’t see Betty Blue to appreciate Bitter Moon; in fact, the opposite may be true.  But the theory nevertheless stands that Polanski decided that what Betty Blue (already considered over-the-line for all of its nudity) would be best having gone full trash- and that he was the man for that dirty job.

Click over to the disc’s alternate audio track to hear film historian Troy Howarth’s commentary track wherein he discusses Bitter Moon to be one of his favorite movies.  Howarth’s gig doing commentary for this 139-minute undertaking is on the ambitious side of such things, though he never really runs out of things to talk about.  The disc also offers the film’s theatrical trailer.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics has done a terrific job in siezing all that Bitter Moon has to offer.  They also provide the afore-mentioned very frank interview with Peter Coyote, who also discusses how he suspected that this film, in all its overtness, might derail his career, but he couldn’t say no to Polanski.

Though not at all a hit in 1992, Bitter Moon has a lot going for it.  As shot by Tonino Delli Colli (Once Upon a Time in America, which perhaps coincidentally is glimpsed on a TV in the film), it maintains a mood of simultaneous alluring warmth and uneasy darkness.  Bitter Moon also boasts a score by Vangelis (Blade Runner), whose cinematic involvement is always noteworthy.  Collectively, the inspired involvement of these creators, among others, make for a most brazen neo-noir cocktail, indeed.