With obvious roots in Roman Polanski’s influential debut Knife in the Water, Bitter Moon is Polanski’s superior 1990s work and his best since 1976’s The Tenant. You can see its influence up through films like Neil LaBute’s nasty In the Company of Men.
Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) are a happily married couple aboard a cruise ship. Nigel meets Oscar (Peter Coyote) who insists on telling his own long, sexual history with Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner; Polanski’s wife since 1989), also aboard the ship.
Polanski’s obsession with obsession is on display here, but he does away with some of the tricks from his great 1970s film. Gone are the wide-angle close-ups and grotesquely painted up characters leering at the camera. Instead, he gets mileage out of good ol’ human misery.
Here’s one of the best moments in the film. It’s heart-stopping and really shows an evolution over the decades in the director’s style. Nigel and Mimi dance quite closely. He’s infatuated:
She every so often looks beyond him, off-screen. It’s moments like this, which anticipate a payoff, and where we have more information than at least one of the characters, that build tension in Bitter Moon:
They both turn-
-and Polanski cuts to a gorgeous POV. Amidst the revelers Fiona sits perched (I think that’s the right word) atop Oscar’s wheelchair, staring at her husband who’s been caught red-handed. I love this frame. It’s silly (check out that huge blue hat…a digression of sorts: there’s plenty of humor in Bitter Moon. At one point an older man vomits into his hat) and crowded, but the core of it – Fiona – is chilling within the context:
Of course this wouldn’t be a Polanski film without the requisite nosy neighbor. The man’s still obsessed with apartment buildings, their lack of privacy, and unwanted intrusions into private moments:
One thing that struck me as odd about Bitter Moon is how softly Polanski shoots it. By that I mean that his flashback transitions (and there are many) are pretty traditional. The camera pans slowly away from a talking subject and a long, slow (soft) dissolve brings us from present to past. There’s nothing wrong with this technique, but it feels like something out of an old romance. It’s fantastical at times, like this pretty shot of the moon dissolving away:
It’s quite intentional. The slow softness of it all belies the murky underbelly. And it hits harder at the end because of the romancing along the way.