Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 7
To be sure, each of us is capable of harboring lust for a number of different “things” (e.g., all of the numbers of pi), but sexual desire underscores a unique aspect to this particular sin – the futility of the pursuit itself. People want sex for a number of reasons, but when we look at another person and want to “have” them, what is it that we are really seeking? The most clinical answer is an orgasm – that scintilla of time between the two moments of eager anticipation and regretful terminus. On a level that the superego can better process, poetry, literature, and cinema are brimming with metaphors translating this impetus into an overwhelming need to possess another human being, wholly and completely – knowing full and well that such an endeavor is impossible. To contemporary Western society, lust is not only viewed as “the ill-bred, trashy cousin of upstanding members like love or friendship,” (Simon Blackburn, Lust, Oxford University Press 2004), p. 1), but also an almost pardonable lapse into temporary insanity – a legitimate entry point into the courtship/marriage/child-bearing cycle. No matter how the feeling is articulated, there is still the contradiction: that desire to possess another is ultimately inimical the concept of love. And as with all of the cardinal sins, indulging that desire – even in the name of love – may ultimately lead one down a bottomless pit.
In the same way The Sweet Hereafter (1997) exposes wrath when it is sold as justice, director Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1994) exposes lust when it is sold as love. On the outside is a familiar framing story featuring an attractive and polite British couple, Nigel and Fiona (the perfectly-cast Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas, both on the cusp of affirming their romantic lead bona fides with Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)), who have embarked on a cruise to India to rekindle their seven-year marriage. Enter the boldly flirtatious French ingénue Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s spouse since 1989) and her older, brasher, paraplegic American husband, Oscar (Peter Coyote), and quickly, Nigel finds himself drawn into the couple’s sordid story by Oscar’s enticements/warnings of the possibilities that Nigel could realize with Mimi.
For Nigel and Mimi’s tale, the setting is Paris, the score by Vangelis is swoony and sweeping, and the photography is slightly diffused. The would-be protagonist, Oscar, is an aspiring writer, but just beneath the surface, we learn that he is merely a trust fund baby indulging in a Henry Miller fantasy. That said, he’s got the traditional leading man language down pat (e.g., the gratuitous use of comma before “baby”). With the table appropriately set, Polanski begins this deconstruction with one of the most pervasive and dubious romantic tropes in both the cinema and life – love at first sight. Oscar sees “a sorceress in white sneakers” on a bus, noticing her fumble when the ticket inspector comes by, and in a Rohmer-esque shot, he slips her his ticket and gets himself kicked off the bus.
Oscar then becomes obsessed with finding her – waiting at bus stops, peering through windows – until he succeeds, ironically enough, while he is on a date. And so they embark on what looks to be a whirlwind romance. The first time they make love is before a cozy fireplace. A ride on ferris wheel, with arms outstretched, transitions into an erotic dance by Mimi in a candlelit room, which then moves to a scene at a kitchen table that tiptoes across the line into the unsavory. And shortly thereafter, Oscar chimes in:
“The seasons came and went. Mimi’s face still held a thousand mysteries for me, her body a thousand sweet promises. But lurking at the back of my mind was the unspoken fear that we’d already scaled the heights of our relationship. It would all be downhill from now on. And then something happened – something that would put things on a whole different plane.”
An engagement? No. Children? No. That “something” is a golden shower. Then comes a new phase – weeks locked up in the apartment playing with S&M toys. And when that gets stale, they mix things up by having a night on the town; but exposing their “relationship” to the outside world for just one night merely serves as an invitation to desire’s favorite child – jealousy. And then, as they reach the precipice of “sexual bankruptcy,” comes rock bottom.
Indeed, lust is “mad in pursuit and in possession so,” to quote the Bard. But in the midst of all of this sexual exploration, Polanski drives home the point that Oscar and Mimi really have nothing to bind them together other than lust. When Oscar threatens to end the relationship, Mimi begs and pleads. That need to possess, without much consideration of the intellectual or emotional merits, is simply too strong.
In the second half of the film, the couple spirals downward into a dance of degradation, which culminates in a violent merger of the framing and primary narratives that has been criticized by some reviewers as completely over the top. That criticism would be entirely understandable if one assumes that Polanski is going for “drama / romance / thriller” (as imdb describes the film); but such indulgences seem entirely appropriate if the primary purpose is satire. And within a society that abhors lust in most contexts, but seems to forgive it in others, perhaps satire is the best way to explore its parameters – even if Polanski himself does carry a certain amount of baggage with respect to such matters.
Like all stories dealing with the extremes of sex, it arrives at moments when we can barely prevent ourselves from laughing. (There is a reason for this: S&M combines humorless scenarios with absurd choreography.) It is the easiest thing in the world to walk out of a movie like Bitter Moon shaking our heads wearily and complaining about Polanski’s bad taste, grotesque situations and fevered imagination. The purpose, of course, is to prove that we didn’t fall for it: That we are much too mature, serious and well-balanced to be taken in by his juvenile fantasizing. Well, of course Bitter Moon is wretched excess. But Polanski directs it without compromise or apology, and it’s a funny thing how critics may condescend to it, but while they’re watching it you could hear a pin drop.
– Roger Ebert’s review of Bitter Moon (4/8/1994)