Last week my wife asked me for the name of the Roman Polanski film where people were held hostage. My immediate thought was Cul-de-sac (1966), but no, that wasn’t it, it was Death and the Maiden (1994) she was after. But the question set off a line of thought that concluded with the realization that nearly all of Polanski films deal with people being held hostage in one form or another—whether they’re hostages in a literal sense, prisoners of their surroundings, captives of their own minds, entrapped by obsessive relationships or simply held in the society of their times. This was brought home forcefully when I re-watched—after a number of years—his 1992 black comedy/drama Bitter Moon for this review. In fact, Bitter Moon may well be Polanski’s most superbly layered film on the topic of hostages.
The very setting of the film’s framing story—an ocean liner—literally holds the four main characters hostage for the duration of the voyage. The characters are comprised of two married couples—played by Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner, along with Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas—who in one way or another hold each other hostage. Nigel (Grant) is held hostage when forced to listen to Oscar (Coyote) tell him the sordid story of his life with Mimi (Seigner) and by his own fascination with and desire for Mimi. In turn, Oscar is held in a past that forces him to tell this story, much like the obsessive ancient mariner of Mr. Coleridge’s poem. And the story Oscar tells is that of two characters who hold each other prisoner—with the balance of power constantly shifting—in a love/hate relationship. At the same time, Fiona (Thomas) is seemingly held in place by her very proper British reserve, which, in the end, will transform into something else. It’s a beautiful—and quite disturbing—balancing act of interpersonal relationships and desires that are both satisfied and thwarted. By turns moving and creepy—and very sexual—it’s one of Polanski’s darkest and deepest works, yet strangely one of his least celebrated.