Onboard an ocean liner headed for Istanbul, British couple Nigel and Fiona meet a strange French woman called Mimi who is travelling with her crippled husband Oscar. Oscar proceeds to tell a story of how he met this girl in Paris, and how their obsessive affair led him to this place.
Very much indicative of Roman Polanski’s skittish middle years, post Chinatown and before his return to glory with The Pianist, this sordid tale of sexual obsession, told with blithering complexity through a series of flashbacks, would be too terrible for words if you didn’t notice the blackly comic edge. How else to swallow such preposterous caterwauling about love gone wrong, which reduces Polanski’s poor actress wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and aging American actor Peter Coyote, to acts of such depravity neither have recovered much of their poise since.
The set-up has us compare the prudish, and by association, sexless marriage of Hugh Grant and Kristen Scott Thomas (some 2 years before Four Weddings), with this severely het-up couple’s episodic tapestry of kinky bed-hopping. Memoirs so laughably overwrought they make The Last Tango In Paris seem the soul of credibility. There is crassness rather than danger in the G-strings and pig-mask role-playing that Polanski unveils as the ultimate debasement of romance. If low on urge, try whips, psychological torture and physical violence. Don’t they believe in divorce in Paris?
In the director’s head, this is some Grand Guignol parable on modern marriage, part film noir, part porn movie, but it creeps along painfully slowly barely mustering a turn of events let alone a solid twist. Mimi, of course, is the other player in the tryst, and Nigel (Grant doing what he does best – twittering) is drawn to her both in person and through the extremities of her story. Of course, without giving too much away, this nasty game is still ongoing, the entrapping of this priggish couple, the very next move. As it all ends with a preposterous last gambit, you really become convinced Polanski just wants to have a big old laugh.
Deliberately provocative, infuriatingly melodramatic, this is a film that begs not to be taken seriously, and requires a ready suspension of moral discernment for maximum enjoyment.