'Moon' is a 'Bitter' story to swallow as its stars are outshined

June 24, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "Bitter Moon," Roman Polanski seems to have the words "voyagers" and "voyeurs" all mixed up. You think you're on a boat, but where you really are is at the peephole, watching some pretty steamy, sordid stuff.

The setup is amusing, more amusing, in fact, than the movie. Aboard a standard-issue tourist cruise to the Mediterranean, a stuffy married young Britisher named Nigel (Hugh Grant, so stuffy you wonder that he's able to breathe) notices a beautiful young woman dancing solo one night. I am happily married, he keeps telling himself, but Grant wittily shows us the play of contradictory impulses across that smug face, and the acute discomfort of a man who knows he should be in church feels when Circe's siren song begins its insistent melody of yearning between his ears. Soon thereafter he's approached by a sleazy geek in a wheelchair who turns out to be the young woman's husband. There's a subtle hint of prostitution, as if the crippled man, Oscar, is offering the younger fellow a chance at his wife's charms. But the price is high. To get a taste, Grant has to listen to the man's story.

Since Oscar is played by Peter Coyote, something of a specialist of late in portraits of debauchery and despair, we know we're in for quite a ride. Coyote quickly represents himself as a wealthy but unpublished novelist, and once he starts talking, we know why he is and will always be unpublished: that fruity prose style, purple and verbose, ornate and laborious, gristly with cliche ("One look at her and I knew I was in heaven!"). He then proceeds to unreel the dismal story of his marriage, with a subtext the minor mystery of his injury.

The story is not nearly so amusing as it should be. In fact, compared with the saga of O. J. and Nicole, it's pretty tame. Basically, it's a story of too much sex: It's as if the two of them simply burn each other up. Unable to quench their fires with the standard husband-wife repertoire, they sail off into the zephyrs of other forms of coupling, including elaborate fantasy games, sado-masochism and ventures into the more extreme regions of submission and domination. They seem, as a fun pair, the living examples of Woody Allen's famous dictum: "Is sex dirty? Yes, if you do it right."

It might be both nasty and weirdly compelling if only Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's actual wife) could bring more zest to their parts. She's not really an actress, merely a beautiful woman married to a powerful director, and she seems sadly inert and immobile, as if she's made out of wax. It's as though Polanski, drawing on private, intimate memories, can see her erotic spell, but for the rest of us, there's no particular magic. She seems uncomfortable, even embarrassed.

Coyote is grandly, self-importantly bad. She doesn't act enough, he acts too much. It's one of those crazed star turns, vanity and arrogance off the walls. But also, in his white suit and wheelchair, he carries with him a distressingly comic memory of Guy Caballero, a phonily handicapped radio station owner played by Joe Flaherty on the old "SCTV" show.

By far the more amusing plot centers on Grant, the altar boy with the perfect marriage, who cannot tear his blaspheming eyes off Seigner. He's much livelier than either Coyote and Seigner, and his yearning for Seigner plays off his relationship with his wife, Kristin Scott-Thomas (also from "Four Weddings and a Funeral"). The two of them capture ferociously the brittleness and subtle, needling competition that crackles comically through a marriage that hasn't ripened so much as calcified. Would that the movie had been about them!

"Bitter Moon"

Starring Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner

Directed by Roman Polanski

Released by Fine Line Features

Rated R

**

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