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)