This is par for the course in Bitter Moon, a laughable film - though not a comedy - about the sexual kick of being top dog. It starts on board ship: a holiday cruise to Istanbul and India, though not much of a holiday by the look of those manic gusts or that black-and-pewter sea. As the opening credits roll, the camera draws back through a porthole, and then - oh dear - slowly thrusts back again. This sets both a tone and an obvious question: how can Polanski hope to chart the furthest reaches of erotic behaviour, when his notions of sexual symbolism are stuck at the first chapter of Freud for Kids? Given a fresh pair of lovers and a small kitchen, for instance, most of us could have done better than a blurt of drinking yoghurt and a pop-up toaster.
The excess begins at sea, when a happy British couple - Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott-Thomas) - meet their exact opposite. First the wife, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom the film designates as an area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty. Her husband is an American called Oscar (Peter Coyote), confined to a wheelchair with a badly broken spirit. Coyote is just right for this - all stained and sneering, as though he were dripping with bilious tales and had plenty to tell. Which, unfortunately, is precisely what he does. Bitter Moon is half-digested and grossly undramatised, a loop-tape of explanations and voiceover; the longer it goes on, the more it drains our interest away from Oscar. Compact with evil suggestion at the start, he slowly thins out into a bore.
Not to Polanski he doesn't. Nor to Nigel, who has to sit there and listen to Oscar's story, the web of his sticky life. The movie is thus one flashback after the next, a tiring structure at the best of times. And this is the worst, one big balloon of passionate hot air. 'Eternity for me began one April morning in Paris . . . sidewalk cafes, fluttering skirts.' This would be fine if sung by Gene Kelly in a beret; take away the tune, however, and the words go dead. Mind you, if you think that stinks, cop a load of this: 'I was looking at all the female beauty in the world embedded in one form . . . a kind of reticence that hints at unbridled potentiality.'
That's Mimi, of course, or at least his first memory of her. Oscar is a writer, and a failed one at that, and there is a school of thought which holds that Oscar's love is supposed to be naff and over-ripe. Sorry, guys. That would be fine so long as the movie cut the other way, and showed his vulgarity for what it really was. But no - Bitter Moon is an irony-free zone. Polanski films Paris in much the same way that Oscar talks about it: hands that reach and touch on a merry-go-round, lip meeting lip in semi-silhouette against a real fire, the camera that climbs up Mimi's legs rather than having the guts to look her in the face. Oh, and I think I heard an accordion. I rest my case.
To be fair, the love proves to be less eternal than Oscar hoped. It wanders through various stages: the hardcore kinks, the slow snuffing-out of lust, man treating woman like a slave, and woman getting her own back with compound interest. There are wonderful moments, as when Peter Coyote sits shivering and helpless in cold water: if it's razors and bathrooms you want, Polanski has not lost none of his steely touch - his trademark, indeed, from Cul-de-Sac to Chinatown to Bitter Moon, has been a blade nicking flesh from a face. Against that, however, so much of the new film feels cursory and worn - whips and rubberwear hauled out of the old sex cupboard, or Mimi's exotic dance, which makes Oscar feel randy but reminded me of Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Bali. And how can we take dialogue seriously when its own seriousness sounds so arch and posed, like a third-rate translation? 'Not a day goes by when I don't think it might be better to kill myself and be done with it.' Ah, what anguish]
This is all very sad. It is not, however, wholly out of character. Polanski is one of the greatest of modern film-makers, a greatness that springs from bravado - pushing characters to the brink, indulging yet mocking their desires, pulling the wool over their eyes and the rug from under their feet. His movies excite us because they flirt so delicately with the ludicrous, and sometimes - not surprisingly - they fall heavily in love and won't leave it alone. That happens with The Tenant, and now again with Bitter Moon. It is, in a sense, the child of Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac, both of which showed an outsider who blundered in and cracked the life of a couple. But Cul-de-Sac was quiet and unblinking; Donald Pleasence and Francoise Dorleac went about their absurd business in haunted, holy landscapes. By contrast, the new film is too messy and pleased with itself; made more than 25 years later, it actually feels more juvenile - Polanski's pet weirdos no longer draw us on, but are simply trained to shock.
The film is good on social embarrassment: Oscar calls himself 'a little duck dabbling in a pond of pink flesh', to which Nigel replies, 'Steady on, old chap'. It gets a laugh, but I suspect that Polanski also thinks of his audience as a bunch of Nigels, badly in need of sexual defrosting. Isn't that rather out of date, the proud flourish of an expatriate who has lost touch - rather like his choice of soundtrack, endless pelvic disco numbers from the early Eighties? Only towards the end does Polanski heed the lessons of Cul-de-Sac and turn his attention properly to Nigel and Fiona. They aren't stooges at all, but victims, and rather more intriguing than their loud-mouthed predators.
This is especially true of Kristin Scott-Thomas, who gives off a politely chilled sexiness, like one of Irving Penn's photographs of Dior models - 20 degrees below Emmanuelle Seigner, whom the film merely nags us to find voluptuous. Holding everything back, Fiona is so flawless that all you can think about is what her flaws must look like. We see one of them at the climax; I didn't really believe it, yet the atmosphere that descends then is genuine Polanski - shatter followed by calm, a damp look back at what has been a voyage of the damned. It makes the film feel better than it was. Bitter Moon makes you wince, occasionally with fear but mostly at the sight of genius gone silly and sour. 'Don't play with your zizi while I'm gone,' Mimi warns Oscar. Go tell it to the director.
City of Joy is designed as a relentless heart-warmer. Patrick Swayze plays Max, an American hulk who gives up medicine and flees to Calcutta, where circumstances provoke him to take it up again. He makes two great friends: Joan (Pauline Collins), a rough Irish saint in the slums, and the rickshaw driver Hasari Pal (Om Puri). I was glad that the director, Roland Joffe, avoided any cheap slush between Max and Joan, but he can't leave the goodwill alone - crazy monsoon dances, a few cures outweighing all the suffering. The pleasant surprise is Swayze, baffled and bullish where a more refined actor might have shown off his moods. And the unpleasant surprise is Ennio Morricone's score, his worst ever. The final chorus sounds like 10,000 Pekinese puppies stuck in a cave.
'Bitter Moon' (18): Odeon Haymarket (839 7697) & Kensington (371 3166), Chelsea Cinema (352 3742), Gate (727 4043), Screen on the Hill (435 3366), Whiteleys (792 3324); 'City of Joy' (12): MGM Fulham Rd (373 6990), Shaftesbury Ave (836 8861) & Trocadero (434 0032), Barbican (638 8891), Whiteleys (792 3324). All numbers are 071.