This is part of my series on foreign film, indie film, and film festival winners. These types of films are a huge influence on my writing and I want to share them with you.
Drama, Romance, Thriller
I was only fifteen when Bitter Moon came out. It wasn’t something they showed at the local movie theater, so I’ve missed it all these years. Someone recommended it to me recently (I think it was one of you dear readers) and once I knew it was Polanski, I put it on my list of must-see missed films.
Synopsis (Spoilers! If you plan to watch Bitter Moon, do not read under any circumstances.)
Language: French | English
The story opens with a British married couple, Fiona and Nigel, (Kristin Scott Thomas and Hugh Grant) who are traveling to Istanbul on a cruise ship. While at sea, they meet a mysterious French woman (Emmanuelle Seigner), who immediately fascinates Nigel. That evening, Nigel watches her dancing alone in the ship’s lounge and thne has a cryptic conversation with her. On his way out, a wheelchair-bound man asks him for help. His name is Oscar and he tells Nigel that the beautiful woman is his wife, Mimi. Oscar asks Nigel into his cabin for a drink and insists on telling him the story of how he and Mimi met.
I automatically loved the opening of Oscar’s tale. He was an aspiring writer who moved to Paris to trace the footsteps of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the like. He wistfully recounts the first time he saw Mimi on a bus and how their romance blossomed and flourished. Oscar makes Nigel uncomfortable as he explains in explicit detail the development of their intense sexual relationship.
The story gets more and more bizarre, but Nigel can’t help himself from coming back to hear more about Mimi, mostly because he is increasingly becoming infatuated with her. Oscar knows this and uses it to bait Nigel in again and again.
Meanwhile, Fiona is wise to what’s going on and her patience is wearing thin as Nigel disappears for hours on end.
Oscar tells Nigel how eventually, like all good things, the passion between Mimi and him tapers off, and no matter what they did they could not reignite it. And believe me, they tried everything. This is when the story takes a dark turn where Oscar takes advantage of Mimi’s devotion and mentally abuses her in the worst ways imaginable. His cruelty during this part made me cringe, and I went from liking Oscar to despising him. It reminded me of a Dorian Gray situation. Oscar rejects Mimi because she fails to inspire him, and he begins to punish her for it. The only thing that lightened this part was the bad wig and clothing they put on Seigner in an effort to make her ugly and plain. Not an easy thing to do! The costume was more comical than anything.
Mimi becomes pregnant, and after forcing her to have an abortion, Oscar offers to take her on a trip. This is a trick and he sneaks off the plane before takeoff. She is sent off to Martinique humiliated and alone again, and Oscar delves head first into a lifestyle of debauchery. Day breaks after a night of drinking, and while chasing after one of two girls he is in the process of taking home, he is smashed by a bus. Yep. Polanski made sure we didn’t see that coming. There was no slow motion shot of the oncoming bus, no view of the hapless character standing in its inevitable path. It was just “smash!” Anyway, Oscar isn’t doomed to the wheelchair yet. He is confined to the hospital for a few months with a broken femur.
Enter Mimi. She seems to have recovered her beauty and self-respect and brings Oscar flowers. Although she is the only person in the world who has come to visit him, he once again insults her without mercy. This is when Mimi snaps and, in a rather awkward sequence of baiting him with a handshake/yanking his leg sling, he crashes to the floor where he apparently breaks his back, permanently disabling him.
The only thing I might criticize here is why didn’t Oscar tell anyone that she did it? What did the hospital think happened? Polanski skips over all those details and goes straight to their new life together back in Oscar’s Paris apartment. Here they engage in a strange codependent dynamic. She’s too emotionally scarred to live without him, and he is physically dependent on her for his every need.
Back to Nigel on the ship: he is now obsessed with the story of Mimi and pursues her without a thought to his wife. He even contemplates telling Fiona that they should both have affairs while on the cruise. He chickens out and instead drugs Fiona with Dramamine so he can sneak out and find Mimi.
The plot culminates on New Year’s Eve. The ship is hosting a party, and despite the rough seas, the passengers are revelling. Nigel finds Mimi on the dance floor where he finally makes his move. She refuses his attempt to kiss her, but before he can try again, Mimi points out to him the fact that Fiona has arrived at the party and is watching everything he’s doing.
What does Fiona do? Throw a drink in his face? Storm away crying? Now, this is the best part.
Fiona joins Mimi on the dance floor where they entwine in a provocative dance. It’s obvious that the only people out of the foursome who will have any sexual liaisons are the two women. They begin making out in a triumphant display. After watching all the chauvinistic machinations of Oscar and Nigel, I literally clapped at the their victory over the men.
But this is not the happy end.
Nigel tracks down the women in Oscar’s room, where they have passed out after what was, according to Oscar who presumably watched, some passionate lovemaking. Oscar muses on the two nymphs’ beauty. Nigel, jealous and outraged, wraps his hands around Oscar’s neck, but stops when he feels an object in his belly. Oscar has a pistol pressed into his flesh, but instead of shooting Nigel, Oscar lifts the gun, executes sleeping Mimi, and then shoots himself.
This movie was a hell of a ride. You think you have it figured out, but Polanski distracts you and then thrills you at the least expected moments. It’s full of intriguing, sensual scenes (and one of the sexiest solo dance performances ever). All in all, it’s a film about love. Though Oscar and Mimi’s relationship ends tragically, we get the notion that Fiona and Nigel’s love story is finally truly beginning.
***** 5 stars
NOT recommended for…
…viewers who are squeamish about kinky sex and witnessing psychological abuse.
…film-lovers who like dark, artfully crafted erotic dramas involving complex characters and a delightful tad of outrageousness.
Have you seen this movie?
How did you like it?
What other indie/foreign films would you recommend to me and my readers?