Peter Coyote did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Oscar Benton in Bitter Moon.
Peter Coyote, who somehow I never noticed before sounds just like Henry Fonda, is most often an authority figure character actor not unlike Scott Glenn, or more recently Richard Jenkins. Coyote's role is a strict departure from that as we first meet him as a shady figure, lurching around in his wheelchair all too eager to reveal his long history with his seductive wife Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner). This film as a trashy erotic thriller again very much embraces the trashiness, and really the success of such a film depends on how entertaining it manages to be within that, as well as if it attempts to perhaps just a bit more than that. Well this film really falls almost entirely upon Coyote's shoulders to make the film work as the hot mess it is, given that Hugh Grant, and Kristin Scott Thomas, are only fairly bland diversions while Seigner seems mostly there to strip nude. That leaves Coyote to make something of it all, and I suppose I would not reviewing him here if he didn't. There is already a bit of fun to be had just from seeing Coyote in such a role, but Coyote plays into the film's style in the right way. He's certainly having fun right from his first devilish glare, as he invites Grant's Nigel to listen to his story, but he allows us on it as well.
Coyote in the present set scenes is pretty great in embracing that style of the film in the fashion to the point of amplifying it. His work matches the nature material as even in Coyote's slimy lecherous manner he seems to embody the film. He's sweaty, he's perhaps unappealing in many ways, yet there is something most intriguing about him. Now much of the film though takes away from the crippled Oscar as he tells Nigel his past with his wife Mimi that left him in this state. We see Oscar as a wannabe writer who meets, and falls for the waitress Mimi. Now in what are a series, of somewhat repetitive scenes that seem often made just to get Polanski's wife in new sex position, Coyote does make something of them. His performance in these scenes actually attempts to derive a bit of substance past being entertaining trash, even if the focus perhaps is most closely upon it. Coyote's performance bothers to find any depth in this as in the early scenes, he's quite good at being perhaps a more typical role for himself as just the ambitious yet romantic writer who finds this most intriguing woman. Coyote finds an earnestness, not overt, as he keeps the overt style away here enough creating a more sensible frankly portrayal of this man as he enters what at first seems an ideal relationship.
Their relationship ends up being anything but ideal though as they seem to try to trump one another as it constantly goes back and forth from seeming genuine affection, to hatred, to any sex act you can name, to intense manipulation. Now Seigner's performance really only has two settings and is more of an idea, really more a fantasy, than a character, but Coyote's work does bother to connect the strands. In his work he has the starting point be that genuine love he seems to hold for her, and on that he only portrays such a genuine intrigue at whatever she may have next for him. In that there is a direct hook he creates, as Coyote shows the way in every interaction how he holds onto her for so long. As it continues though Coyote gradually reveals a greater frustration as an innate growing element in Oscar that only worsen, which he attaches to this attempt to find any thrill with his wife. Coyote combines both in portraying this tightrope of intensity in his performance of one of such lust and irritation. Every act has some of both in his delivery and whole manner that creates this horrible dynamic that makes the collapse of the relationship merely an inevitability. Of course as soon as it ends, being such a film as this is, Oscar finds himself crippled due to a road accident.
Mimi returns to him, and again Coyote is excellent by showing the cycle as essentially starting again. As he once again portrays such genuine affection, yet that subsides to this time a seeking for a thrill, which Coyote now shows to be unsatisfying as Mimi essentially tortures him. This cycle is given a soft reset as the two finally get married, and go on that cruise that is the framing device. Now what Coyote has down I suppose foremost is deliver the tale in a most entertaining way with his narration being filled with such a vivid texture representative of the lascivious story. He also though brings us to Oscar's current state which is as this bitter man. Coyote again is entertaining but also fascinating in that he again makes sense of the central relationship. Now his work exudes such palatable and striking bitterness in every word, that is compelling in itself. He again though connects to the idea of this thrill seeking between Oscar and his wife, as now they attempt to ensnare this new couple into their web. Coyote's great as he shows Oscar loving it as the two seem to fall, I have particular affection myself for his devious reaction when Nigel comes across Oscar in what he expects to be Mimi's bed. Both Oscar and Mimi laugh at that man, and there you see the shared joy once again though in a most unusual endeavor. This continues until they succeed in pulling them in and we have one last scene with Coyote. It is a brief scene yet a fantastic one for Coyote, as he grants an understanding to the whole character and relationship. His reaction is swift yet effective as any joy stemming from the bitterness that leads to the misery of others falls from him and Coyote portrays Oscar falling to the initial affection again. This time though it is through a powerful despair at what the two have done and what they have become. Coyote's performance stands as a turn that makes schlock work by being properly enjoyable, but he does go further to add a bit substance perhaps a little nuance to this trash.