LONDON–Four years after “Frantic,” Roman Polanski approaches rock bottom with “Bitter Moon,” a phony slice of huis clos drama between two couples aboard a Euro ocean liner. Strong playing by topliner Peter Coyote can’t compensate for a script that’s all over the map and a tone that veers from outre comedy to erotic game-playing. Pic could excite initial interest on its sex content but looks headed for dry dock in English-speaking marts.
With its shipboard setting and emotional entanglements, pic would seem on paper to recall Polanski’s 30-year-old first feature, “Knife in the Water.” Instead, its misjudged tone and flowery prose (which may have worked in the original French novel) more often recall his loopy ’70s comedy “What?”
Initial focus is on young marrieds Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), a couple of hoity-toity Brits enjoying a seventh-anniversary Mediterranean cruise to Istanbul. Things immediately start to go awry when they help a distraught young femme, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom Fiona finds on the floor of the ladies’ john.
Mimi turns out to be the ship’s glamorous cabaret act, and when she later gives young Nigel the cold shoulder in the bar, his interest is aroused.
That night, he’s accosted by her American hubby, Oscar (Peter Coyote), a wheelchair-bound misanthrope who lures the Englishman into a drinking session and insists on recounting his life story.
Thereon, pic settles down into a series of long flashbacks detailing Coyote-Seigner’s tempestuous love life. Coyote’s scheme seems to be to lure Grant into Seigner’s bed to perform the marital duties that he is unable to perform.
Per flashbacks, Coyote was a typical American in Paris trying to become a second Henry Miller when smitten by dance student Seigner. Following a hotsy affair, they married, but when Coyote’s fires cooled and his writing muse failed to arrive, he began to humilate her in hopes of shaking her off. Seigner’s revenge was to cripple him for life, locking them together in love-hate hell.
The movie’s structure soon starts to hit the reefs as the Coyote-Seigner story takes over. Given the size of the flashbacks (which would easily fill a normal feature), the present-day story becomes little more than a series of fillers marking time before the next boozy sesh between the two males.
Grant is mostly reduced to bemused, stiff-upper-lip reactions as Coyote spills out the most intimate details about his wife. Scripters seem even more at a loss over what to do with the character of Scott Thomas, increasingly jealous of Coyote’s grip on her husband’s attentions.
Lopsided structure could have worked if Polanski had established a consistent visual style and dramatic approach.
Instead, the movie starts off as a romantic drama, dissolves into a Parisian amour fou, takes a left into kinky sex romps and winds up in sub-Pinterland. Ridiculous coda, involving Scott Thomas and Seigner at a shipboard party, is way over the top.
Despite its two-hour-plus length, pic holds a certain awful fascination as Polanski careens every which way with the material. But the only real hook is finding out how Coyote ended up in a wheelchair. Thereafter, it’s downhill fast.
Coyote gives a scenery-chewing perf as both the younger lovestruck scribe and the whiskey-soaked cripple, and deserves some kind of medal for stone-facing some of the ripest lines in memory (“Her stomach was hungry, her organs in turmoil”).
Seigner, matured since her “Frantic” days, is eye-popping in the sex scenes, but the helmer’s wife often sounds as if she’s reading her dialogue off idiot boards. Scott Thomas is wasted in a sidelined part, and the bemused Grant looks as if he has strayed off the set of a Merchant Ivory pic.
Tech credits are OK without being distinctive, with Vangelis’ music adding a touch of gloss and Tonino Delli Colli’s shadowy lensing at its best in the Billancourt Studios set of Coyote-Seigner’s Paris apartment.
Shipboard scenes were lensed aboard a real Mediterranean liner, credited in the final crawl.