FILM / Breakfast at Polanski's

THEY have been wandering round Paris all night. They watched the dawn at Notre Dame. Now they're at his place, for the first time.

In the lift of his apartment block, she held a baguette with an unselfconsciousness that promised much. He's microwaving croissants and making hot drinks, coffee for him, chocolate for her. She lights the fire, and draws curtains against the morning. He comes in with a tray, and they start to make love, for the first time. His hand hesitates, and it is she, young as she is, who makes the first move. They enter the montage world, where soft golden close-ups of body parts replace each other in a dreamy rhythm - nipple, lips, hand, nipple, lips. Then the camera starts to move away, as it must if the film is to hold its head up among other films with pretensions, and continue to look down its celluloid nose at skinflicks. But where is the camera to go? Towards that flickering fire, perhaps. Towards a pile of discarded clothes. Towards two goldfish curveting in a bowl, why not? It is wholly characteristic of Roman Polanski's new film Bitter Moon (18) that on its tactful retreat from voyeurism the camera should halt at the breakfast tray on a low table, which is being rhythmically jostled by one or other of the pelvises Polanski is too polite to show. As the baked goods vibrate and the hot liquids threaten to slop into their saucers, we are given an image that is no less tawdry for being superficially discreet.

Watch that moment at home on a video, and you will only catch your breath involuntarily through your nostrils. The same reflex, multiplied hundreds of times in a cinema, becomes a social snort, and the audience begins to wonder if what it is watching isn't actually a comedy.

Not a chance. The particular comic unease of the breakfast tray shot, its combination of sleaze and gallantry, comes from the man being merely a film star (Peter Coyote playing Oscar), while the young woman, Emmanuelle Seigner as Mimi, is Mrs Polanski. The director is proud of his bride's sultry beauty, and shows her off in figure-hugging outfits, notably one of red latex; once, dancing for her lover in the first glow of passion, she flails one breast free of her bodice. But there are limits. Polanski's exploitation is tempered - at the last moment, admittedly - by a sense not of propriety but of proprietorship.

It's not that Polanski doesn't have a sense of humour: he does. But it is broad rather than deep, and when a film isn't entirely conceived as a spoof (Dance of the Vampires, Pirates) he doesn't always know how to harness comedy, not to let it disrupt the atmosphere he is creating. As long ago as Repulsion he sabotaged his own achievement in generating an overpowering mood of murderous repression, with poor Catherine Deneuve feeling sexually harassed even by the unshaded lightbulb hanging from her bedroom ceiling, when he had the heroine's sister, on holiday with her boyfriend, send a postcard. What dropped through the letterbox was an image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the phallic symbol to end all phallic symbols. The audience laughed and was let off the hook.

Nowadays, the moments of intended humour don't break the mood because the mood is already ridiculous in its own right. Polanski takes an overheated story absolutely straight, a story, from Pascal Bruckner's novel, which proposes that the logic of obsession is from passion to perversion to a mutually dependent hatred. He manages not to notice that this trajectory depends on a hysterical view of woman as both parasitic and coldly destructive, child and exterminating angel, dominatrix and doormat. What he actualy finds funny can be summed up in two words: oral sex.

So in one scene Mimi dribbles milk over her upper body and advances on Oscar to have it licked off. Polanski, always the gentleman, allows Emmanuelle Seigner to sink out of sight when the job is done, leaving Peter Coyote's rapt face and anguished finger movements to convey that she is not now scrubbing the floor. The toaster has been emitting excited smoke all this while, and now flings its slices heavenward with a gratified twang.

Later Oscar hires a prostitute through the Parisian phone / computer network, the Minitel (the details of bought sex are noticeably more convincing in Bitter Moon than those of supposed passion), who renders him the same service. Her poodle, however, jumps up on to the bed at a crucial juncture. Oscar grabs the animal in his frenzy, presumably intending to push it away, but ends up instead shaking it from side to side. The sounds of human passion blend with those of manhandled poodle.

The bulk of Bitter Moon - and at 139 minutes it is certainly a bulky film - is told in flashback. Oscar and Mimi are on a ship sailing to Istanbul and beyond. Oscar, now wheelchair-bound, buttonholes a young Englishman called Nigel (Hugh Grant), who is taking his wife Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) to India as a seventh anniversary present, with the story of his life.

It was Polanski's idea (might he have read or seen The Comfort of Strangers?) to make the couple ensnared by Oscar and Mimi English, to contrast predatory sexual exhaustion with timidity and good manners. The result is intermittently funny, since Hugh Grant, playing a caricature of an Englishman, responds with a caricature of English good behaviour, and goes about his accomplished actorly business as if nothing was wrong. No fleck of the shame or horror the actor must be feeling shows in his eyes as, confronted with continental eroticism at its most preposterous, his character murmurs 'Gosh' or talks about the weather. At one moment, after a muffled argument with his wife, Nigel storms shyly out of the cabin in search of Mimi, and returns a moment later to retrieve his tweed jacket. A chap needs to be properly turned out, even when dealing with nympho Frogs.

Early in the film Oscar asks Nigel if he doesn't think Fiona more alluring than Mimi. The idea is meant to be ridiculous, but there will always be people who prefer blue Wedgwood to red latex. With Bitter Moon Roman Polanski makes his wife look tawdry, makes his talent look extinct after the partial revival of Frantic, and makes the best advertisement for repression since Brief Encounter.

See facing page for details.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future