Film Review: BITTER MOON (1992) – directed by Roman Polanski

Posted: August 2, 2012 in Film Reviews
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A relationship reaching its sexual peak then crashing like the stock market is as inevitable as death and taxes. And while no two couples ever cross that bridge in their relationship at the same time, the fear of whether they’d be able to survive a sexual apocalypse is a mutual one.

In 1992, Roman Polanski brilliantly tapped into this fear and directed his most stunning achievement to date with BITTER MOON.

The film tells the story of a prim and proper British couple, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Nigel (Hugh Grant), who are on a Mediterranean cruise ship to Istanbul, en route to India. Along the way, they encounter another couple on the ship, a seductive French cock-tease called Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) and her paraplegic American husband Oscar (Peter Coyote), a failed and self-absorbed writer.

Nigel and Oscar strike up an acquaintanceship whereby the latter invites the former to his cabin on a nightly basis to regale him with stories of how he met Mimi on a bus in Paris, fell in love and then how their relationship went horribly wrong. During a series of flashbacks, Oscar recounts how their love blossomed and inevitably reached a sexual plateau where they began developing a narcotic dependence on television to avoid dealing with the obvious: a relationship that had officially bottomed out.

Ironically enough, Oscar and Mimi get their second wind one evening when Mimi literally pisses on the object holding their fragile love together (the TV), an act that gets Oscar incredibly aroused to the point where he crawls on all fours toward Mimi and allows his face to be engulfed by a cascade of golden showers. From that point on, Mimi and Oscar explore bondage, sadomasochism, erotic humiliation and cosplay.

However, even BDSM can’t prevent their relationship from decaying and eventually Oscar breaks up with Mimi. She begs him to let her live with him and adds the caveat that it can be under any condition. Oscar sees this as an opportunity to explore sadistic fantasies at her expense, mostly those involving public humiliation.

These acts become increasingly extreme until she becomes pregnant. Oscar persuades her that he would be a terrible father and that she should have an abortion. While she recovers, Oscar visits her and is shocked by her condition. He almost relents in his attempts to drive her away, but instead promises her a vacation somewhere exotic. While on the plane, he pretends his luggage doesn’t fit in the overhead bin and leaves her to find help from an attendant. He then abandons the flight, leaving Mimi on board all alone.

A couple of years pass where we see Oscar indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle of parties and one-night stands that abruptly ends one night when he drunkenly steps in front of an oncoming vehicle. He’s visited in the hospital by a much more confident Mimi who by manipulating Oscar’s traction device, manages to cripple him. She then extracts her vengeance upon him by moving back into his apartment to become his full-time caretaker. She revels in dominating and humiliating him to the extent where she cuckolds Oscar by seducing and sleeping with other men in front of him.

Meanwhile, Nigel is both shocked and appalled by Oscar’s story. However, he can’t help but be intrigued by Mimi. Oscar encourages him to have an affair with her, though Nigel lacks the confidence to approach her directly. His wife, Fiona, warns him not to stray too far and that anything he can do, she can do better. A lesson Nigel tragically learns by the film’s denouement.

BITTER MOON is a bitter pill to swallow. While the events that unfold are admittedly extreme and not likely to happen in most couples’ lifetimes, the essence of what does occur hits so close to home that it’s absolutely heartbreaking to sit through this film. The story of a couple falling in love and vainly struggling to maintain the sexual and emotional momentum of their relationship when all signs point to their ship having long since sailed from Love’s shores is something everyone can relate to, golden showers notwithstanding.

And while we’re on the subject of golden showers, the depiction of BDSM and the various fetishes Mimi and Oscar indulge in are treated with class and a surprising amount of dignity. In the hands of another filmmaker, this material could’ve easily come off as cheesy, but Polanski provides us with a realistic depiction of what a vanilla couple experimenting with S&M for the first time would probably look like.

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