Monday, May 30, 2011

Bitter Moon (1992)

Surely we've all heard of real life stories floating about of a man completely bowled over by a woman with her bewitching looks, beauty to die for....yet asking her out turns out to be the biggest mistake of his life!

In "Bitter Moon", Roman Polanski's overlooked 1992 drama, Peter Coyote's character Oscar narrates his sordid experience of a similar kind to a reluctant listener, Nigel (Hugh Grant) aboard a cruise ship sailing to Istanbul.

Oscar, a small-time writer on a wheel-chair observes that Nigel who is travelling with his wife Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) seems to have been struck by the thunderbolt that is Oscar's comely wife Mimi (Emanuelle Seigner). Oscar urges Nigel to "beware".."She is a walking man-trap", he tells him!! Nigel, clearly taken aback, of course, denies being attracted to her.

Oscar almost forces Nigel to listen to his bizarre tale to Nigel, who although initially reluctant, seems to be experience some sort of guilty pleasure in hearing Oscar out.

In a series of flashbacks, Oscar narrates the lurid true story involving him and Mimi...a tale which begins as an innocent romance and turns into what Nigel, at one point, describes as a "perverse sex life" as he almost throws up when Oscar covers some of the most sickening details..

Why does Oscar decide to tell his story in such vivid detail to a complete stranger? Why does Nigel, who clearly thinks Oscar is a sick man for making his wife the subject of an erotic tale, keep coming back to him for more? Does he harbour the hidden desire to have spite of his wife being around?

All throughout the first half of the film, Polanski plants these questions in the viewer's mind, which are soon answered as the story unfolds at its own pace yet never lets up. It is almost shocking, the way Polanski reveals the true personalities of some of his characters, as they initially seem to carry a very different persona about them.

At one point, the victim and the victimizer almost switch places in a very dramatic fashion and you are left in limbo as to who to root for! Of course, that is one of the strongest points of the is very interesting the way these characters have been written. These are probably some of the grayest characters you may have come across in any form of fiction.

Roman Polanski directs like the pro that he is and that is not unexpected of him. The screenplay takes its time to unfold as some of Oscar and Mimi's sexual encounters are depicted in considerable detail. Some may find it rather odd that Polanski casts his own wife, Emanuelle Seigner, in the central role of the seductress and makes her enact all kinds of scenes that one normally wouldn't want to watch his wife doing with other men!

One of the film's most winning aspects is the performances, with Peter Coyote delivering a rock-solid performance of an aspiring writer reduced to a helpless cripple who can't seem to escape the situation he is in.

Emanuelle Seigner's transformation from a sweet girl on the bus with a child-like innocence to the temptress who could have any man she wants, to the 'victim' who actually seems to experience true love is breathtaking! I guess Polanski couldn't have asked for a better actress to fill Mimi's shoes.

Hugh Grant, the typically English dude, isn't very different from what we've seen of him in countless other films.

Kristin Scott Thomas doesn't get to do much and it's a pity.

Victor Banerjee appears for a short while to play a character probably written to depict the "sanity" or "normalcy" in this whole alarming state of affairs with the four central characters.

"Bitter Moon" is an intense drama bordering on erotica that may not be everyone's cup of tea, but is still a highly interesting work of cinema by one of the most prolific and revered film-makers of our time. Do not miss!


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Belle De Jour (1967)

Luis Bunuel's "Belle De Jour" is an enigmatic film..much like the mystical beauty at the heart of it.

Ravishingly beautiful, but a woman of a few words and seemingly aloof, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is what you would call the typical "bored housewife", but not for any fault of her husband's mind you. Pierre (John Sorel) is a handsome, loving husband and together they lead a luxurious life, yet Severine is somehow averse to the idea of sleeping with her husband. Hence, although they share the same bedroom, they don't share the same bed, much to Pierre's dismay, but he chooses to hang in there hoping Severine would come around and overcome her discomfort.

Their family friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) openly flirts with Severine and she keeps rejecting his advances and asks him to keep his compliments to himself!

So aloof is Severine, that sometimes her mind wanders off (and the audience has to watch carefully to find out "when"), and she has vividly erotic fantasies of masochistic nature. Given her quiet nature, some of these fantasies manage to shock....for instance, when she imagines herself being tied and stripped and whipped and molested by two carriage drivers in the middle of the woods!

A chance information about an acquaintance entices her to explore something new...she decides to spend her afternoons in a high class brothel working as a prostitute!

"Belle De Jour" is a complex film. This doesn't refer to its plot..that part is fairly simple. What is complex, then, is Severine's troubled psychology. Only through various images and Severine's mood and expressions, Bunuel tries to convey to us what exactly brews in her head. It is with great dexterity that Bunuel directs the scenes in the brothel. Just like her, we are in for a surprise, every time a new client comes in. Her interactions with the several clients with bizarre fetishes of varying proportions are showcased in some of the film's best scenes.

Bunuel cleverly intersperses the narrative with fleeting shots depicting her (possibly traumatic) past...which give subtle clues about her behavioral traits. Some aspects of her psyche are revealed in some surreal sequences (some of the best I've seen in film).

For the most part, Bunuel directs like a true master and builds the film beautifully as it takes the form of a potent psycho-sexual drama which works to mesmerizing effect. But he does not rely on gratuitous sex and nudity to accomplish his goal. In fact there is not a single scene with explicit nudity in "Belle De Jour". Bunuel instead relies on shocking images including the situations in the brothel, Severine's outlandish fantasies, the overall tension between some characters (including a lesbian subtext) and of course, the fine performances. Suffice to say, "Belle De Jour" is one of the boldest films I've seen, especially for its time.

However, the episode involving a particularly violent client of Severine, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) in the final act seems a bit forced and has the trappings of a pedestrian thriller, which could've been done away with or handled differently. The film would be just as effective, or even more, without this particular plot development. Nonetheless, it doesn't render this otherwise flawless film any less watchable.

At the center of this spellbinding experience, is the woman herself, Catherine Deneuve, the breathtaking beauty, who enchants us with her arresting performance as Severine. In spite of not being in agreement with her about some of the decisions she makes, one can't help but root for her. On some level, her character in "Belle De Jour" reminded me of her character in Roman Polanski's classic psychological thriller "Repulsion"..although both films as such are entirely different.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that although there are plenty of films depicting a married woman and her repressed sexuality out there, only a handful few, like Luis Bunuel's "Belle De Jour" actually stand out, the reasons for which you'll find out when you are done watching it! 

Score: 10/10