Bitter Moon (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1992)
Perhaps it was my own jaundiced state of mind over the possibilities of romance, but watching Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon again for class, I was surprised by how much it plays like a black comedy. At the very least, I found myself laughing a bit too much. Indeed, the tone of the film alternates between the campy, humorous, and nihilistic. The Alfred Hitchcock worship of Polanski’s previous film, Frantic (1988), is replaced with sadistic, campy, misanthropic excess. More broadly, I was left with two impressions:
The first is that Polanski wants the audience to enjoy the emotional torture on display and the emotional wounds the couple inflicts on each other. This is what makes the film so interesting: though it superficially works as a moral condemnation—see what happens when you get bored with sex! It’s a slippery slope from making animal noises in bed to sticking dirty needles into your partner’s legs—it never denies the necessity of enjoyment both for its characters and the audience. That is to say, I don’t know if Polanski wants you to feel superior to the characters as much as he wants you to realize you may not be too different.
The second impression is that the film directly equates love and romantic coupling with sadomasochism. Or perhaps romantic love is the veneer that barely covers up the need for couples to torture each other? In Polanski’s world (or more particularly in films like Cul De Sac, Bitter Moon, or Death in the Maiden) the bickering couple, the former or new lover who takes emotional cheap shots—all the banally sadistic things that happen in relationships, or have happened, becomes an expression of a darker impulse.
I think a character in the film tells Nigel and Fiona that they should have kids if they want marriage therapy (rather than travel by ship to Turkey as they are doing in the film.) Perhaps this is so they will repress their sadistic and masochistic tendencies which devolve from their “love.” It seems more like defeatist advice than anything. Having a kid will at least let them defer their problems.