Pictured: Peter Coyote’s fingers and Emmanuelle Seigner’s lips in Bitter Moon (1994), one of Roman Polanski’s most batshit-insane and underrated films. At the outset it feels like an early-’90s erotic thriller in the vein of Basic Instinct; by the third act it has revealed itself to be a jet-black comedy of which Buñuel would likely have approved. That is to say it’s a comedy about the madness and the excess of sexual desire, and about sadism and masochism as a perpetual loop (represented visually by the repeated image of Coyote and Seigner riding a carousel together). Everything about the film is too much, from the sickly melodramatic score by Vangelis to the purple dialogue—and yet it is all completely absorbing in the most shameless way. Like the film’s square-but-curious audience surrogate figure (played by Hugh Grant), we can’t quite believe what we’re hearing and seeing and yet we’re so riveted we can’t turn away.
Peter Coyote (who chews the scenery with relish, and rightly so; he’ll never get a role this good again) plays a character who would not be out of place in an 18th-century Gothic novel, or a pornographic one. He’s a seducer: mysterious, grotesque, and flamboyantly rhetorical. Both literally and symbolically castrated (he’s a paraplegic), he has learned to use his tongue to attract and control everyone within range. The story of his love affair with the endlessly mutable Mimi (Seigner), recounted for the Hugh Grant character over a series of nights, is as digressive and baroque as a tale by Scheherazade and as perverse as one by the Marquis de Sade. While I haven’t seen Polanski’s last film, Venus in Fur, it would seem to make an ideal double bill with this one, in part because it also stars Seigner; throw in Cul-de-Sac and you have an entire evening’s worth of kinky farce. I loved discovering Bitter Moon because it reminded me that Polanski is fundamentally a comic filmmaker, an absurdist for whom the battle of the sexes is a dance—violent, beautiful, ridiculous.