MOVIES : ON LOCATION : On Location in Exile : Roman Polanski’s current film is an explicit treatment of sexuality--and if that jars authorities in America, ‘so be it’

<i> David Gritten is a London-based free-lance writer</i>

Roman Polanski is on the run. Here he is at the Studios Billancourt on the banks of the Seine, an impish figure in a floppy beige sweater, jeans and sneakers, dashing from his office up flights of stairs to lunch in the studio restaurant overlooking the river. Here he hurriedly tears at an artichoke before literally sprinting down to the set of his latest movie, “Bitter Moon.” He immediately takes charge, commanding dozens of extras to move this way, then that, lunging and gesticulating all the while. It’s exhausting just watching him.

Polanski is 58, though he has the energy of a man 20 years younger. It may be that he feels the need to stay a step ahead of those elements who would like to see him brought to heel. When “Bitter Moon” is released, those elements will be out in force. A reading of its script confirms that a new chapter of controversy is about to be added to Polanski’s already stormy life story. The script is sexually explicit to a degree rarely found in mainstream films these days. Observers around the set here are predicting that it will be the most shocking major film since Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” became such a scandalous success in 1973.

“Yes, it will cause controversy,” Polanski agrees. “Especially in the United States. But is that any reason for not making a film in which I believe a lot?” He shrugs.

“Bitter Moon,” adapted from the popular French novel “Lunes de Fiel” by Pascal Bruckner, is about the relationship of a couple who meet in Paris. Oscar is an expatriate American of about 40, a womanizing would-be writer living on a private income as he tries to emulate the lifestyle of Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Mimi is a waifishly beautiful Frenchwoman in her 20s who becomes his obsession. American actor Peter Coyote (“E.T.,” “Jagged Edge” and “A Man in Love” by French director Diane Kurys) plays Oscar. Polanski’s own wife, the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who starred in Polanski’s last movie, “Frantic,” is Mimi.


The couple meet and fall helplessly in love until their relationship begins to demand different means of gratification. This begins almost innocently, with a highly original application for liquid yogurt, but soon intensifies, with bondage and sadomasochism coming into play. One scene shows a Parisian prostitute performing a sexual act on Oscar while her white poodle licks his toes.

Beyond sexual gratification, Oscar starts to get his kicks with forms of emotional abuse toward his partner before she starts to wreak her revenge. Oscar may be a deeply unpleasant character, but Coyote is playing him with a raffish charm that might make it difficult for audiences to identify the point where his behavior crosses from self-indulgent to unacceptable.

“It’s a serious film,” Polanski notes. “If it’s explicit sometimes, it’s for valid reasons. It’s not for exploiting the public, not for commercial reasons, that it talks about sex or shows nudity. It’s the story of a couple, and it’s inevitable if you go to extremes that you may shock certain people. But you make a choice--what kind of audience are you aiming at?”

If “Bitter Moon” was just one film distinguished by its explicit treatment of sexuality, one could dismiss it as atypical. But other films at various stages of development suggest that several major filmmakers--none of them American--are, like Polanski, ready to test the limits of the currently restrictive attitude toward the portrayal of sexuality in film.


Consider the following:

* Canadian director David Cronenberg has completed his film adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch,” and 20th Century Fox is expected to release the movie in Los Angeles on Dec. 27. It is produced by Jeremy Thomas, who also produced “The Last Emperor” and “The Sheltering Sky,” both directed by Bertolucci.

The Burroughs novel details aberrational sex practices in a junkie subculture. Thomas declined to be interviewed for this article, but Ginger Corbett, his London-based publicist, said she had read the script and agreed that certain scenes were “near the knuckle.”

* Post-production work is now being completed on “The Lover,” based on the autobiographical book by novelist Marguerite Duras. It is the story of an outrageous affair set in French Indochina (now Vietnam) between the 15-year-old daughter of French colonialists and a 30-year-old Chinese man. “The Lover” is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (“The Name of the Rose,” “Quest for Fire,” “The Bear”).


Timothy Burrill, co-producer of the film and of Polanski’s “Bitter Moon,” says of “The Lover”: “It contains some of the most beautiful, dramatic and violent sex scenes I have ever seen on film.”

* “Basic Instinct,” the hugely controversial thriller directed by Dutch-born Paul Verhoeven (“Total Recall”) and starring Michael Douglas, is also part of this apparent trend. Producer Irwin Winkler and writer Joe Eszterhas at one time quit the film, complaining that Verhoeven wanted to make the film more sexually explicit than originally intended. Winkler told The Times that he left “Basic Instinct” because Verhoeven wanted to show body parts “in various stages of excitement.” (Eszterhas later returned to the movie when he and Verhoeven agreed on changes.)

The film made headlines while it was shooting in San Francisco, because of protests by members of the gay community, who were enraged by the script’s portrayal of gays and lesbians. This led to another disagreement between Verhoeven and Eszterhas; the March issue of a San Francisco magazine quoted Eszterhas as saying that Verhoeven “seemed solely interested in emphasizing and sensationalizing the erotic aspects of my script.” The film is scheduled for release in April.

It seems that “Bitter Moon,” “Naked Lunch,” “The Lover” and “Basic Instinct” are each likely candidates for an NC-17 rating, the adults-only category of films introduced last year by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. The NC-17 rating replaced the X rating, which had become synonymous in the public mind with pornography.


But the NC-17 rating has itself become a source of contention in Hollywood. Philip Kaufman’s “Henry & June,” an account of writer Henry Miller’s sexual relationships, remains the only major studio movie to be released under an NC-17 rating. And filmmakers have complained that studios routinely ask them to cut explicit passages from their films so that they may be released with an R rating, and may therefore be seen by a wider audience. Even Ken Russell’s recent film “Whore,” which starred Theresa Russell as a working prostitute who describes graphically the sexual practices her clients demand, was cut at the behest of its American distributors and received an R rating.

So are these impending films, controversial and explicit, the beginning of a new, more permissive era in filmmaking? Timothy Burrill dismisses any talk of a new trend: “As far as the two films that I am associated with are concerned, Jean-Jacques simply wanted to make a love story next, and Roman might have been making one of two very different films instead of ‘Bitter Moon,’ but they both fell through.”

But Polanski himself is not so sure. “I think that Hollywood went through many periods like (the last decade),” he says. “It’s another swing of the pendulum. You go from one extreme to the other. I already knew about ‘The Lover’ and ‘Basic Instinct,’ and that three films like this are being made now . . . there must be something to it.

“There is a reason for everything, for every occurrence. It may be that more ambitious filmmakers are trying to reach in a different direction from the current trend. It’s not my job to analyze this, but I satisfy myself with the assumption that there is a reason.”


The mood on the “Bitter Moon” set is one of gaiety on this particular day; a New Year’s Eve party is being staged on a cruise ship, from which Oscar relates his and Mimi’s story in flashback to a fascinated, seemingly strait-laced English couple (played by Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas).

French extras, some in formal wear, others in fancy dress, throw streamers, burst balloons, roar with laughter, act tipsy and dance. To duplicate the rocking motion of the cruise ship, the set has been constructed on wooden rollers; when on a command the set is pushed and pulled, the floor tips and heaves quite realistically. Coyote wears a red fez and a cream suit; his character Oscar, through a twist in the plot, is confined to a wheelchair. But this is one of the film’s happiest scenes; for the intense exchanges between Coyote and Seigner, Polanski declared the set closed to all visitors.

Polanski, laughing and exuberant, darts about, controlling the mood on set effortlessly. He looks carefree today, though it is hard not to reflect on the problems and tragedies that have beset his life. He grew up in the Polish ghetto of Krakow and narrowly escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews in that city. His mother died in Auschwitz, and young Roman had a tough childhood in the squalor and brutality of postwar Poland.

His earlier work--"Knife in the Water,” “Cul de Sac” and “Repulsion"--reflects a talent afflicted by psychological torment. After Polanski settled in America, more horrors followed: His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and her friends were brutally slain by the followers of Charles Manson.


Polanski is currently living in Paris, a fugitive from the United States after a 1977 charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old Woodland Hills girl. He fled to London rather than face sentencing.

Though there have been suggestions that his legal status might be reviewed to allow his return to the United States, Polanski confirms that the situation is “no change, status quo.” “I’m very happy to live in Europe,” he adds. “I have a desire to end my problems with American justice, but that’s for my peace of mind rather than any design of going to live in America.”

Because of the sexually explicit nature of “Bitter Moon” and the nature of the charge against him, might not the film’s release give his enemies ammunition?

“Well, so be it,” Polanski says with a long sigh. “This is a risk I have to take. I can’t be making pictures respecting the feelings of people toward me or against me as a person. I have to be the artist first.”


Peter Coyote, for one, is fully aware of the step Polanski is taking with “Bitter Moon.” “To think that Roman would like to clear up his legal business in the United States, and go back and visit--and this (film) is the billet-doux that he sends,” the actor says, shaking his head with wonder. “My guess is there’s every possibility that the forces representing God, Christ and decency will seize on this as exactly what’s wrong with the secular, amoral world.”

Coyote also understands that there is an element of risk to his own career in taking the part of Oscar.

“When I first saw the script,” he recalls, “I called my agent, and said, ‘Hey, are there too many clients in the agency or something? Is this a way of getting rid of me?’ I don’t ever have to worry I’ll be playing any more Disney dads after this movie. So I was very frightened, and I can say unequivocally that if it was any other director, I’d never have considered it. Not for an instant.

“But no one produces a great picture by accident, and Roman has made ‘Cul de Sac’ and ‘Knife in the Water’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘Chinatown,’ so this is unarguably one of the world’s greatest directors.


“It was a great moral test for me. I have kids to support, bills to pay. I’m at an age and a place in my career where I feel I have something left of a window of opportunity--that my image has not yet gelled inexorably in the Hollywood community. There’s some slim chance that one day I may win great roles. I’m proud to say that even considering that this (film) might imperil that, I agreed to do it. It’s a matter of self-esteem.”

Coyote agrees that many actors would take a look at the script and firmly rule out the chance to play Oscar. “Which is probably why I have the role,” he says. “The dynamics of the film business are such that one would seek to find the most bankable actor one could. Though I’m quite well known and respected in Europe, I’m not a bankable actor in America by any stretch of the imagination. I know other people’s footprints preceded me into the chamber of Polanski. I suspect I was the only actor who didn’t demand changes and chose instead to trust Polanski’s innate sense of talent.”

Polanski partially confirms Coyote’s theory: “Peter was one of the first names we looked at. When we started to organize the financing of this picture, whenever American distributors were going to get involved, they wanted some name. So we went through masses of names, an episode I would rather forget. Eventually it came down to Peter. I’m glad that it did, because I can hardly imagine anyone better for this part than him.”

But had some actors backed off from playing Oscar? “It was not only actors turning this down but technicians,” Polanski admits with a rueful grin. “And not only Americans but British technicians too--a cameraman and an editor. It’s surprising, isn’t it? To me that was tremendously surprising.”


Polanski concedes that the more intense scenes in “Bitter Moon” had taken their toll on his young wife, Emmanuelle Seigner: “She does it all for real; she’s what you’d call a Method actress. When she cries, she cries for real. She builds up her emotions to the state required by the scene, and this influences her life outside the studio. It’s been difficult for her, and since we’re husband and wife, for me as well. She’s fighting with her partner on set all day, and when she comes home she’s more or less in the same state. It’s impossible to switch it off like a faucet.”

As it is, Polanski and his film could not have found a more eloquent defender than Coyote. “Roman’s the most ethical director I’ve ever worked for,” he says. “He absolutely refuses to violate the integrity of his vision, no matter what the cost--time, energy, struggle or commitment. This is a man who’s driven to be excellent.”

Polanski could also do worse than to send Coyote as an advance man to shield “Bitter Moon” from the inevitable flak. “I’d love the opportunity to talk about pornography and obscenity, because I have my own very clear, stringent definitions,” he says, warming palpably to his subject.

“Gimme the Barbara Walters show, let’s talk. Let’s talk about the obscenity of people stepping over other people in cardboard boxes on their way to the opera. Let’s talk about selling cocaine to finance anti-Communist activities in Latin American countries, which the voters and Congress have voted down. I’m ready to talk about that in a hot minute. And to pose all that against one movie that has some dirty words in it and deals with one questionable man’s ideas on sexuality. Let’s talk! I’m formidable at this.”


Coyote thinks it’s no accident that a film like “Bitter Moon” is being made outside Hollywood. “None of those people (will) make a $4-million movie and be happy it made $11 million or $12 million,” he says. “It’s low status to them, it’s small time. Because basically they’re not artists. An artist has to do what he does. Basically if a producer in Hollywood couldn’t get laid and couldn’t make a lot of money making movies, he’d sell artichokes. He’s not compelled to do what he does.”

The verdicts on “Bitter Moon” must wait until the film is released next year. Timothy Burrill worries that American audiences, which readily accept violence in movies, find it harder to be sanguine about candid treatments of sex. “I can understand films about physical relationships,” he says. “I don’t get distressed at seeing people make love. I find it difficult to relate to horror films--'Friday the 13th Part 67,’ where there’s a lot of violence and blood.”

Coyote notes that Americans “will not blink at showing the most intricate acts of murder and dismemberment, but they will react in outrage at frank discussions of sexuality. I can’t tell whether it’s anything more than a cultural peculiarity.”

He fears that “Bitter Moon” might be swept aside by faint praise. “The way America deals with something they can’t handle is to dismiss it,” he says. “They’ll say it’s boring. If they really want to do it in, you’ll hear, ‘It’s not Polanski’s best work.’ ”


Can “Bitter Moon” reverse the trend of prudishness toward sexuality that has characterized films in the last decade? “Ah,” Polanski says, “you’re asking the $100 question. I don’t consider it. All I do when I make movies is to hope audiences will share my liking for certain thoughts and ideas and the way I’m expressing them. One should never ask oneself, ‘Will this be received the right way, will it please, will it make money?’ Nothing good can come out of it. It’s like a painter who asks whether each brush stroke will please certain groups of people. It’s absurd.”

He sighs deeply. “No writer, artist or philosopher ever had an easy life in expressing their ideas. Or even in choosing a subject.”


Despite the NC-17 rating, American filmmakers are avoiding s-e-x. See Film Comment, next page.