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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Moon' a Cruise Full of Eroticism

March 18, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This much can be said for Roman Polanski's carnal hoot-fest "Bitter Moon"--it keeps you wondering from scene to scene if the director has gone bonkers. No doubt a lot of the lunacy is intentional, but it's still lunacy.

And not terribly enjoyable lunacy either. The film plays like a dirty joke that somehow got lost in the translation. Polanski, with his screenwriters Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, must have figured that an obsessive sadomasochistic love triangle (or is it a love parallelogram?) would work better if the whole thing was tarted up and fatuous--equal parts put-down and put-on. They try for a rollicking, aghast tone to mimic the daffy mood-swings of sexual compulsion. And, to be sure, "Bitter Moon" holds your attention. How could it not when we're allowed into a world where our hero-heel, Peter Coyote's Oscar, indulges in sex games disguised as a giant oinker?

The film begins with a suggestively slow zoom in and out of a luxury cruise ship's portal--a sly hint of subtleties to come. Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas) are a tight-lipped British couple Bombay-bound for their second honeymoon when they encounter Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), a seriously smashed jeune fille throwing up in the ladies' room. (It's meet-cute time in Polanski World.) Nigel, a (yawn) Eurobond trader, is drawn to this messy-mouthed bundle of curves in spite of himself. That evening he wanders over to the bar and spots Mimi's little impromptu hoochie-coochie rumba numba and gets turned on by being brushed off. (He says "blimey" a lot, just in case we failed to recognize what a repressed twit he is.) She leaves the porthole of opportunity slight ajar though. This woman could smell a masochist five fathoms deep.

Oscar, her husband, can too. Wolfish and wheelchair-bound, he encourages Nigel's itch. He dragoons the chap into a series of monologues about his marriage that have a heady, "Arabian Nights" effect on the poor man. Nigel keeps harrumphing and then coming back for more. Oscar, crazed and cackling about what a sick joke his life has become, regales Nigel with tales of how he fell desperately in love with Mimi and how that love eventually became sour and twisted.

The flashbacks, mostly set in a distinctly un-touristy, twilit Paris, come complete with Oscar's florid voice-over narration. Example: He describes his first communion with Mimi by saying, "I might have been Adam with the taste of apple fresh in my mouth." Oscar is supposed to be a failed American expatriate novelist--a Henry Miller with the glands but not the talent.

Mimi, a shy dancer who responds swoonily to Oscar's oo-la-la entrancements, first shows her mettle when she accidentally nicks him shaving. The blood tastes warm. Later she sort of accidentally spills a carton of milk on her breasts whereupon Oscar develops a powerful thirst. Even when she evolves into a dominatrix and uses Oscar for a privy or roots him out in his pig-man mode she's still his adoring co-conspirator. But Oscar becomes bored suiting up for decadence and his passion turns sadistic. He troops other women around his cramped, book-lined pad and turns Mimi into a frumpy clown. She's pathetic until you realize--perhaps before Mimi does--that she's biding her time for some pay-back.

"Bitter Moon" can be taken as a cockeyed allegory for what happens when love runs dry but lust doesn't (or maybe it's the other way around). It's a movie about the jollies of sexual degradation made by a martinet. Polanski, who is married to Seigner, is probably working out some sort of married-man crisis in this film. That's one of the advantages of being a movie director--you get to really work out your crises with the camera.

But what's disappointing about the shocks are how conventional they are. Polanski the expressionist libertine heads straight for the most bourgeois transgressions: Mimi's crowning insult to Oscar is to (gasp) get it on with a black man . Her final insult to Nigel is a naughty whopper that plays like a racier kicker to a "Love Boat" episode. The point of all the parading seems to be to reconcile Nigel and his wife in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God rapprochement. Polanski ascends to the pulpit.

He is at least a more interesting scourge than, say, the Louis Malle who made "Damage." The sexual obsession in that film was as heavy as a 10-ton shroud. By comparison, the Zalman King huff-a-thons, like "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Wild Orchid," are trashier and campier and more fun--maybe because the women in them lose their marbles about as often as the men. But Polanski, like Malle, seems fixated on showing us how sex can turn men into dumbos--or porkies. It's a deranged kind of alternate-universe feminism: It's OK for women to drive men nuts because men are pigs. Life is a wallow.

Could "Bitter Moon" be the date movie that brings the Bobbitts back together again?

'Bitter Moon'

Peter Coyote: Oscar

Emmanuelle Seigner: Mimi

Hugh Grant: Nigel

Kristin Scott-Thomas: Fiona

A Fine Line Features release. Director Roman Polanski. Producer Roman Polanski. Executive producers Alain Sarde, Robert Benmussa, Timothy Burrill. Screenplay by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, based on the novel by Pascal Bruckner. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Editor Herve de Luze. Costumes Jackie Budin. Music Vangelis. Production design Willy Holt. Set decorator Gerard Viard. Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.

MPAA-rated R for "the strong depiction of a perverse sexual relationship." Times guidelines: Includes all manner of kinky sexual practices. * In limited release at the Landmark's Nuart, Santa Monica Boulevard at the San Diego Freeway, West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379, and at the Edwards Town Center, Costa Mesa, Bristol at Anton, (714) 751-4184.

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