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Review: His Kinky Tale Rocks The Boat

ROMAN POLANSKI HAS never played it safe. Not in life, and certainly not in his wild, corrosive, smuttily funny Bitter Moon. Recklessly perched on the edge of the ludicrous, this examination of a destructive erotic passion unfolds with an unsettling mixture of steam and mordant iron,,,. Audiences conditioned on the tonal simplicities of Hollywood may feel the need to ward it off with derisive laughter. Big, if understandable, mistake. "Bitter Moon's" unpredictable laughs are quite intentional, the bitter cackle of a romantic bottoming out on his blasted illusions.

We are on a luxury liner bound for Istanbul. En route, a failed American novelist in a wheelchair, Oscar (Peter Coyote), accompanied by his lusciously seductive Parisian wife. Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner. Polanski's wife), decides to tell the twisted history of their relationship to a very proper, uptight young Brit named Nigel (Hugh Grant), Though Nigel is accompanied by his equally well-bred wife, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), he can't keep his mind off Mimi. Oscar's overcooked verbiage ("Eternity for me began one fall day in Paris. . . ") takes us back to the beginnings of his romantic obsession with Mimi and spares no detail in describing to the horrified Nigel the most graphic details of their love life.

Like Nigel, we are bewitched, appalled and unable to turn away from Oscar's gleefully masochistic candor. For what begins with florid American-in-Paris romanticism and progresses through athletic (and hilarious) bouts of experimental sex turns darker and kinkier as the relationship becomes increasingly hermetic. Sated, Oscar's obsession turns into boredom, love turns into hate, and the S&M games are played for emotional keeps. As the flashbacks get more nastily melodramatic, back on shipboard, the two repressed Brits are ensnared in Oscar and Mimi's erotic games, with startling results.

Coyote's broken, bitter Oscar, with his bad teeth and sickly pallor, is a sadistic Scheherazade, perversely compelled to spin out his lurid tale. It's a sly performance and Grant, squirming with rattled propriety, makes a wickedly funny sounding board. Seigner has little technique as an actress, but her awkwardness adds to her poignancy. She's as sensually overripe as Oscar's prose. In perfect contrast, the deft Scott Thomas is all sharp, precise angles.

It's hard to watch the deadend decadence of Oscar and Mimi without thinking of Polanski's own famously extreme life, and realizing that for all its subversive naughtiness, "Bitter Moon" is actually a rather conservative cautionary tale. Oscar and Mimi have tested the limits of romantic obsession. and their relationship, having nothing to feed off but itself, turns to poison. But Polanski, bless him, will never be a conventional moralist. This sea cruise may be headed for hell, but he'll always reserve his right to giggle his way through the horror.

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