It has been so many years since Roman Polanski made a movie anyone cared about (do you even remember Frantic? Polanski must wish he could forget Pirates) that his status as the masterfully perverse auteur of Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown has long been eclipsed by his reputation as an impish bad boy, the smirking Humbert Humbert of Eastern Europe. All of which makes his scandalous new psychodrama, Bitter Moon (Fine Line, R), sound like a reckoning. Whatever its flaws, this rudely kinky dissection of a sadomasochistic love affair is, in a sense, the Polanski film we've been waiting for, the one in which the 60- year-old director lays bare his obsessions with innocence and lust, beauty and power, the compulsive appeal of destructive erotic relationships. Sound sexy? It is here and there. Sound like the latest specimen of luridly far-fetched Eurotrash art porn? I'm afraid it's that as well.
Oscar (Peter Coyote) is that outdated cliché, a tough-guy American fiction writer living in Paris. Surviving on a trust fund, flitting from one affair to the next, he's happy to play the carefree bohemian pleasure seeker that is, until he gets a peek at Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), an aspiring dancer whose youthful voluptuousness instantly enslaves his imagination. Seduced by Oscar's practiced caresses, this shy-looking French girl throws off her inhibitions, and the two descend into a transgressive nirvana intended to make 9 1/2 Weeks look like Jack and Jill.
Mostly, this means we catch teasing glimpses of the couple's charades bondage, pig costumes, Mimi pouring fresh cream all over her breasts, Oscar licking it off as Oscar, in fulsome voice-over, regales us with laughably hard-boiled descriptions of what it feels like to explore the quivery outer limits of desire. Seigner, who's been married to Polanski since 1989, has a chameleonic naughty-girl sexiness that's genuinely bewitching. Her ripe body bursting out of assorted items of leather and rubber, she evokes everyone from the young Mariel Hemingway to Jane Russell at her chest-thrusting sluttiest. Yet the flagrantly exhibitionistic manner in which Polanski displays her ultimately begs a question: What makes an ''erotic drama'' like Bitter Moon any different from a halfway adventurous porn film, other than the fact that it's far less explicit and therefore, one could argue, less honest?
The answer, of course, should be that the film's libidinous explorations emerge from the characters' emotions. But that's where Bitter Moon, like most other highfalutin sex movies, generates less heat than it does hot air. Oscar eventually grows bored with the affair and squirms out of it by turning into a sadistic bastard-an ugly (and lumberingly dramatized) state of affairs that sets up the film's ludicrous second act, which might have been entitled Mimi's Revenge. The hideous aftermath of their relationship is played out in an elaborate framing device, which is set aboard an ocean liner and features Oscar, now an embittered, wheelchair-bound wreck chained to Mimi for life (their mutual hatred has become their bond), recounting his story to a priggish Britisher (Hugh Grant) who is equally titillated and horrified. If you want to see truly bad acting, watch the talented Peter Coyote debase himself here-at his frothing worst, he looks like he's warming up to star in The Peter Cushing Story.
Seen in the light of Polanski's scandal-sheet infamy as a seducer of young girls, Bitter Moon plays like his thinly veiled act of self-punishment. On some level, he's saying, ''This is what a letch like Oscar like myself deserves!'' Yet does the audience deserve it as well? There's something unseemly about the way this hothouse fantasy degenerates into a grandiose spectacle of masochistic unpleasantness. Sadly, the movie indicates that Polanski's erotic narcissism may have consumed not just his life but, by all appearances, his art as well. C-