The final recommendation for Pandora’s Box from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book, is this darkly comic study of sex, desire, greed and cruelty from Roman Polanski.
Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) have been married for seven years, and are on a Mediterranean cruise as an anniversary present, and as a way to keep their spark alive.
When they encounter a woman aboard ship, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), and Nigel is captivated immediately. Even when he meets her crippled husband, Oscar (Peter Coyote), he isn’t put off his pursuit.
At Oscar’s invitation, Nigel joins him on an almost nightly basis as the man recounts his relationship with Mimi, the passion of their initial meetings, the longing, the desire, the constant need for one another, progressing to debasing and degrading one another for the other’s pleasure, until their relationship becomes strained and broken. From there Oscar delights in being cruel to Mimi, toying with her emotions, torturing her mentally, safe in the knowledge she won’t leave.
When he finally believes he is rid of her, fate strikes, and he is hospitalized and ends up in Mimi’s hands, who is now aware of her power and isn’t afraid to use it, with their cruel roles brutally reversed.
Nigel sits, aghast, every night, unable to believe the things Oscar is sharing with him, both aroused and disgusted, and none of it sways his growing need for Mimi.
But what is really at stake here? What is really going on? And who will be hurt next?
Polanski deals with love and desire in the microcosm of a cruise ship, which, while we see it, never touches land. Dark things are discussed in tiny rooms, hidden from others, suggesting the compartmentalization of sexuality – everyone wants it, everyone wants to talk about it, but it’s never openly discussed.
Cruelty plays a part for all parties in the film, Oscar is cruel not only to Mimi but to Nigel as he taunts and teases endlessly about Mimi, while she in turn endlessly tortures Oscar and Nigel, and Nigel, who is incredibly weak-willed, neglects and by extension is cruel to Fiona, who, playing to the stiff upper-lip, repressed stereotype of an English woman, has her own sensual depths that have yet to be explored.
Polanski makes a film that is erotic and painful, as we watch need give way to desire, as lust turns to disgust.
Darkly funny in a number of spots, the film relies almost completely on the performances of Coyote and Seigner, both of whom are excellent, Seigner begins naive and willing, before becoming cold and manipulative, while Coyote goes through a physical transformation that reflects his emotional state.
While not a film for everyone, this one was highly enjoyable for me, and has become one of my favorite Polanski films, after Chinatown of course…
These past few films in the drama chapter of Great Movies – 100 Years of Film have dealt with strong woman characters, their sexuality and their power, and watch as a whole, was quite an experience.
Next time around, it looks like we’re taking on society with The Rules of the Game, and its recommendations. Stay tuned!