Winning the Best Director Academy Award for his respectable 2002 World War II drama The Pianist notwithstanding, Roman Polanski has never been a particularly good director. Since his 1965 breakthrough with the self-consciously disturbing Repulsion, the Gnomish Pole has been oddly consistent for such an erratic auteur. In his 14 mostly overrated movies since that auspicious coming out, his attempts at seriousness and formula have been crashing bores rescued only by the fashion of his brand name, and his only shining moments reserved for the few playful escapades he has allowed himself (and Rosemary's Baby as the only complete success, at that). Bitter Moon, as it is, is one of his better films, even if only in moments. Following the dire and barren 1980s, during which Polanski's only two efforts were the achingly poor adventure yarns Pirates and Frantic, the dandiprat refreshed his ailing career with an amusing take on a subject dear to his heart: sexual self-destruction. Bitter Moon stars Peter Coyote as Oscar, a decaying cripple enduring some painful karmic S&M for his callow participation in a kinky affair. The aggressively confessional Oscar snares an unfortunate confidante (Hugh Grant, shortly before his Hollywood ascendance) aboard a cruise ship en route to Istanbul and spins the wretched tale of his squalid Paris romance with a wide-eyed and full-figured waitress, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner) now his wife, a woman who is exacting a degrading revenge for his emotional cruelty to her. Grant's stuffy Nigel, searching for a tonic to salve the seven-year-itch in his marriage to Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), finds reluctant titillation in this stranger's gleeful purge. While the Nigel-Fiona subplot is shallow and trite, and Oscar's role as mysterious antagonist leeches from an already tired dramatic device, Polanski enjoys some his best moments in flashbacks depicting Oscar and Mimi's doomed courtship. As adapted by Polanski and three other screenwriters from the novel by Pascal Bruckner, Bitter Moon, in segments, works wonderfully as a mischievous parody of the often ludicrous psycho-sexual power games frequently glamorized in movies like 9 1/2 Weeks. Oscar's tepidly purple narrative adds hilarious gusto to the couple's increasingly silly erotic games, already made comical through the combination of his inflated self-esteem and Mimi's graceless, thick-ankled pliability. Sadly, though, as Oscar and Mimi's relationship devolves into apathy and abuse, so does Polanski's movie lose its gleeful zip, and with more than an hour of unpleasantness remaining, the film wavers between dull and excruciating. The performances are fine, but not exceptional, and the ending relies on a sophomoric escape hatch that's more in keeping with Polanski's other uninspired work. New Line's DVD release of Bitter Moon features an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Trailer, keep-case.
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