Monday, May 6, 2013

All Sorts Of New Possibilities

One film leads into the next over and over into infinity until you sometimes can’t tell the difference from one to the other anymore. Roman Polanski’s BITTER MOON begins with a couple together on a serene vacation, in each other’s arms as if there is no one else in the world. Soon enough the wife steps away briefly but is gone a few moments longer than expected. The husband then goes to investigate ultimately resulting in his life, or rather both their lives, being forever turned upside down. What’s unusual is how this is also essentially the opening of FRANTIC, Polanski’s previous film, although the narrative takes a considerably different turn this time out. And yet, maybe it doesn’t. What the husband finds upon entering the ladies’ room in search of his wife results in both of them aiding a woman played by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s own wife by this point, yes, but also the star of that previous film who was aided in that climax by another married couple. The degree to which she ultimately isn’t helped at all either time indicates how much elements of this film turn the previous one inside out, how almost all of Roman Polanski’s films reflect each other, how much each of them are about very similar preoccupations in the mind of their forever controversial director. Maybe all films reflect each other until they become our very lives as we watch them over and over. Maybe that’s just what happens and it’s the only thing that can keep us from madness in the end. BITTER MOON was released in Europe in 1992 but didn’t turn up stateside until 1994 when, in a fortuitous piece of scheduling, it happened to hit theaters around the same time as the smash hit comedy FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL which also starred the BITTER MOON married couple Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas—not as husband and wife that time but as people with a certain connection to each other and, for that matter, Thomas was even named Fiona in both films making the line between the two oddly blur together even more. I can’t remember now which one I saw first but I actually did encounter both of them the very same week, making the films odd mirror reflections of each other to me for all time. But what is so interesting is how BITTER MOON is such a mirror reflection of itself, of the two couples the film is about, of the present combined with the past it spends much of the running time flashing back to, of the first time the words “I love you” are declared to the point later on when that moment is recreated under very different circumstances, to how it reflects not only the films that surround it but the life that surrounds it in the unavoidable issues faced when dealing with the life of its own director. And, of course, it’s a dark comedy made by Roman Polanski, much as most of his films are dark comedies anyway—I’m not sure anyone has done as much with madness building from the deceptively simple concept of apartment dwelling, a cinematic framework in numerous films of his from way back in REPULSION and THE TENANT to the more recent CARNAGE. Or maybe just enclosed spaces in general—the private yacht of KNIFE IN THE WATER and its triangle of husband, wife and stranger becomes a cruise liner in BITTER MOON where we mostly focus on the foursome of two couples who may all ultimately be strangers to each other while finally somehow understanding each other all too perfectly. Both the apartment and ship in BITTER MOON become worlds unto themselves, the tiny spaces as vast as whole continents as the characters have nothing to do but remain as close to each other as possible. The walls close in as the unspeakable passion turns to apathy and hatred, the sex turns to doing nothing more than sitting and watching TV. And on that ship things become more perplexing, more enticing, the more Oscar tells Nigel his story. Passion dies no matter what, the film indicates. Even simple honesty between couples is never much solace, because eventually all the conversation that remains becomes lies as well. While taking a serene cruise through the Mediterranean on their way to India married British couple Nigel and Fiona Hobson (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) encounter a clearly troubled French woman named Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) which is soo followed by Nigel meeting up with the woman’s husband, a wheelchair-bound American named Oscar (Peter Coyote) who sees right away how attracted Nigel is to Mimi. Without even being asked, Oscar begins to tell Nigel his story, of how he met Mimi when living the life of a writer in Paris, how they both fell madly for each other, living as if there was no one else in the world, how they went too far in their passion and how it all went sour, resulting in what happened to Oscar and their ultimate passage on this ocean voyage. One thing I’ve learned: nothing in life can be as absurd as taking an interest in another person, whether romantic or purely carnal. Maybe because it’s clear that we only ever have one thing on our minds whether we want to admit it or not and what winds up challenging that interest can throw us for a loop like nothing else. Still, there’s a certain amount of honesty in that behavior and the way each person responds to what’s brought before them indicates that their chummy familiarity with each other can be the biggest hypocrisy imaginable. Oscar and Mimi barely even speak to each other on their first date but it’s certainly honest and pure, just like how Mimi’s response to when she cuts Oscar’s face while attempting to shave him with a straight razor is simply to lick off the blood, truly joining them together for all time. But sometimes that honesty extends to when one person asks what they did to cause their relationship to go wrong and the answer is, “You didn’t do anything. You exist. That’s all.” Maybe that’s all you can say to certain people when you don’t know how else to say you love them anymore. At that point all that’s left is the contempt. With a screenplay by Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn (based on the novel by Pascal Bruckner) BITTER MOON is about the madness that comes from all those feelings swirling together, the sort of details focused on that only Roman Polanski ever seems to notice and how those details add up to that particular form of unencumbered frenzy. And mixed within its pitch black comic look at the extremes of sexual obsession maybe BITTER MOON is also what can happen when the dreams of being an artist exceed your abilities or possibly also when your determination to take things as far as possible can exceed your dreams of ever being an artist. Mimi seems to not give much thought to her dancing career anyway and from what we can tell Oscar has spent years in Paris screwing as many women as possible (some of whom we don’t even see the faces of during their brief appearances) and then writing about them in his unpublished books, as if expecting to receive acclaim for the simple reason he’s able to do it and without much apparent thought beyond the sheer fantasy of the whole thing. Even the ever-present Gitanes that he smokes feel like just a part of that image he has cultivated in remaking himself, essentially abandoning his true self. And when he writes out a simple sentence about first encountering Mimi, the woman who will be his love and doom, he erases it instantly as if he can’t bring himself to put such passions into his own work—he has to live them, at any cost. Good for telling a story to a stranger, bad for being a writer. Maybe every type of obsession is a fantasy as much as that cardboard wedding photo Oscar & Mimi have taken after first declaring their love, a fantasy that can’t sustain itself until it’s forced into becoming its own reality. Where is the line? And what is he left with when he doesn’t even bother with the pretense of being a writer? As seems to so often be the question in Polanski films, if you’re not who you always assumed you were then who are you? What are you? Polanski’s approach is never less than impeccable in how he stages every single moment from the innocent reverie of the first meeting on the bus to the random shots of other passengers puking during the New Year’s Eve party on the boat as Nigel’s dream is crushed before him—the irony of the misdirection in the shot when Oscar finally locates Mimi early on is beautifully sly. Maybe some of it is unfortunately limited in what can be shown under the constraints of a film with an R rating (“for strong depiction of a perverse sexual relationship”)--one key flashback is only heard about in dialogue and considering what’s being described maybe that’s for the best but it still feels like a flaw that it’s never shown but the film’s sharpness in portraying Oscar and Mimi’s relationship though each time he licks milk off her breasts gets us to somehow understand his perverse nature, how he finally tires of this while at the same time feeling equally repulsed by his behavior as well. Playing a writer with dreams of what France means to him, Coyote later appeared in Brian De Palma’s FEMME FATALE as someone with a similar outlook to that country and Seigner who has been married to the director ever since they met on FRANTIC, here transforming from virginal beauty to the sexual extremes of a heavily made up mannequin who seems not quite human (this moment always makes me imagine a Polanski-directed remake of Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE) as she ties him up down to the cruel depths of his degrading treatment of her takes full effect. And there’s the unseen home country Oscar has left behind, abandoned for (phony?) dreams of artistic glory, certainly recalling how the film’s director fled long ago, not even remembering when it’s Thanksgiving anymore—by a certain point he’s gone so far from what he used to be that he doesn’t even remember his own birthday. The Vangelis score almost luxuriates in swimming through all this insanity even as the passion does, as Mimi returns home one night to find jealous Oscar watching ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (photographed by this film’s cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and music composed by Ennio Morricone who scored FRANTIC) on TV. Nothing about it can be genuine while it all feels absolutely true. Even when there’s a brief respite for the two it isn’t enough to keep it going since eventually one realizes how forever (or, as Oscar also calls it, eternity) is a long time. Seeming to know he’s out of his element but unable to keep himself from pressing forward in getting involved with this couple, Nigel as played by Hugh Grant (who around this time also starred in the comedy SIRENS where he was married to a woman played by Tara Fitzgerald, not Kristin Scott Thomas, but Fitzgerald still looked like her anyway) is trying to figure out exactly what is going on here. He can’t figure out how much is true, how much is genuine, how much is a show for his own sake while his wife seems to be moving comfortable into a middle age of playing bridge while apparently more taken with children than she’s ever been willing to admit—they’re so open with each other that there have to be some lies buried within. I can say that I identify with some of it, that I’m pretty sure I’ve had women treat me just as Seigner teases Hugh Grant on the ship in between Oscar’s prolonged recounting of their relationship. And I take note of how Peter Coyote, around 50 when this was shot, at one point during a flashback says how he’s ‘pushing 40’ and hasn’t sold a single book? Christ, I’m older than Peter Coyote all of a sudden? On the other hand, if I still haven’t found myself in such a relationship of both extreme passion and hatred does that mean I’m a failure, one who has yet to encounter what this film insists is eternity? Maybe instead of another Polanski film it should really be paired with EYES WIDE SHUT, which also explores different forms of “marital therapy” in its own particular ways. On the other hand, maybe I should remember how the concept of locating inner serenity is laughed off by Victor Banerjee’s Mr. Singh, the fellow passenger who clearly has already found it in his own private narrative, possibly even as he lost his own wife. You don’t have to travel as far as India to discover such a thing. You certainly don’t have to travel “much further” as Mimi enigmatically describes. What is inside will always be there with you in your own tiny apartment. Even if it’s not something you should find in the first place. The extended New Year's Eve climax plays as an extension of the impossibly slinky dance Seigner performs as she practically climbs over Harrison Ford in FRANTIC, also set in a nightclub that has a somewhat Middle Eastern atmosphere, results in the inevitable for someone like him--the awareness that you may have played a few crucial chess moves wrong and, in one more mirror to it all, you’re left standing there like a schmuck. With an equal amount of power coming from Polanski and the four lead actors whose performances are never anything less than riveting all in their own unique ways, BITTER MOON is piercing. It’s compelling. It’s sexual to the point of complete absurdity. It’s hysterically funny to the point of total and absolute pain. It’s painful to the point of hysteria. It’s a film about the dream of really fucking that girl you’ve spent years gazing at from afar, about the fear of finally accepting you’re a failure as you become faced with who you’ve become and what that results in. And the possibility of what might come after. The ocean of life keeps moving, breaking through the waves nonstop, not even ceasing by the end that Oscar and Mimi could very well have planned all along without ever even speaking of it. The moral is a little broadly spelled out in terms of the innocence they left behind, the child they never had represented in the boy Oscar tosses a ball back and forth with, the child that Nigel and Fiona could still have. That possibility is of course represented here at the end in a spectre of innocence that Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley were never allowed at the end of FRANTIC since their own kids were back in San Francisco, throwing parties while their parents were out of town. Here, it’s up to Nigel and Fiona to decide what they want to happen next between them. Roman Polanski and Emmanuelle Seigner had their first of two children soon after BITTER MOON was completed so maybe the film is saying that this next step is the only answer for the future. Maybe other answers are possible but who knows what they might be. Plus there's always the issue of even finding someone who you might connect with on such a level of passion in the first place. But that's another story. In the meantime, all you can really do is move on to the next film in life. Or the ongoing life found within films.

7 comments:

Fred said...

Excellent as always; welcome back, Mr Peel.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Didn't Hitchcock make this movie as Rich and Strange?

Also, welcome back! You were missed.

JamesStamers said...

Thank you so much for coming back. This has made my week!
Thank you Thank you and please stay this time

J.D. Lafrance said...

A very thoughtful meditation on what I always found to be something of an underrated Polanski film. Like many of his, it gets under your skin and I found it tough to shake for days afterwards, thinking a lot about it.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to each of you guys, your kind words mean a lot. It's good to be back.

Lenny Moore said...

Yes, welcome back! I would check your site at least weekly hoping to read more of your thoughts on cinema.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Lenny--

Many thanks for that. Hopefully I'll be sticking around for a while.