Roman Polanski starts with a slow dolly into tumultuous waters as framed through the ship's porthole, then back out to the circular opening to set up the entrapment motif, or maybe the obsessive trajectory back to What? -- or, as far as critics were concerned in both occasions, Whaaaaaat? The circle is rhymed later in the surgery-table lamp of Peter Coyote's frenzied POV, pulled out of the clinic bed by Emmanuelle Seigner to spin the film even deeper into the Tristana pool. Why is he in the wheelchair, and why is kittenish wife Seigner slumped in the bathroom one moment and shimmering to "Fever" the next? Hugh Grant, aboard the cruise with wife Kristin Scott Thomas for marital therapy, dispenses veddy-British indignation as Coyote regales the couple's kamikaze sexcapades, but he's dying to know. Cue the flashback -- American-in-Paris Coyote, fancying himself the next Miller or Hemingway, meeting Seigner in the back of a bus, a close-up floating on the screen. Carnal rapture is ignited and sustained, "on love and stale croissants," a half-open peignoir and spilled milk, her head diving bellow the frame, toasts popping and Frank Tashlin grinning in heaven. Coyote describes the ecstasy of a golden shower with words only, though Polanski, bracingly unembarrassed of the ludicrous, is happy to provide the images for the other capers, cues taken from the writer's purple prose -- bondage romping and sex-shop paraphernalia, yet reality invades fantasy ("How can I believe a pig that talks?") and love is to soon burn out, to be replaced by cruelty, scarcely less passionate in its intensity. Polanski's lynchpin is not the curdling of lyricism but the lyricism of curdling, bliss and degradation enlarged so that there's no space separating them, bridged like farce and tragedy, or the sublime and the ridiculous -- Victor Banerjee may preach the wonders of child-rearing, but the director is more approving of the extreme games adults play. A smutty joke for a boring voyage, or the unbridled laying out of the salacious essence of the human soul? The nakedness of the film's confessions arouses derision in the puritanical, yet the last laugh remains the storyteller's, with the audience protesting but never leaving. Screenplay by Polanski, Gérard Brach, and John Brownjohn.
--- Fernando F. Croce