Max, mon amour
Reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Nagisa Ôshima. Cast: Anthony Higgins, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Hovik, Diana Quick, Nicole Calfan, Victoria Abril, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Sabine Haudepin, Fabrice Luchini, Milena Vukotic, Anne-Marie Besse, Bernard Haller, Pierre Étaix. Screenplay: Nagisa Ôshima and Jean-Claude Carrière.
Twitter Capsule: Hedged, ill-lit, dully droll take on woman-chimpanzee liaison. Missed chances abound.

Photo © 1986 Greenwich Films/Serge Silberman
On the morning of May 13, 1986, the Cannes Film Festival premiered Marco Ferreri's comedy I Love You, in which the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, acquires a keychain with a button that, when pressed, says "I love you" in a pre-recorded voice. As Lambert's character bungles his other relationships, he falls deeply in love with the keychain, which provides all the affirmation he wants, exactly when he wants it. If you can imagine this conceit sustaining itself for more than 30 minutes, tops, you're a more imaginative man than I, and Ferreri's satire of masculine narcissism landed so badly with the Cannes press corps that every piece of journalism I have read about the festival singles it out as a nadir. The movie remains all but impossible to see, but it seems to have worked in the favor of Nagisa Ôshima's Max, mon amour, which, far from coincidentally, bowed later on the same day that I Love You had belly-flopped. Max reaped some indulgent if not quite enraptured reviews, largely on the strength of being stronger than its stablemate, with which it shares some thematic concerns. I don't have the Ferreri at my disposal to judge, but viewed on its own terms, I'd have to call the Ôshima the first major disappointment among the Palme contenders.

Peter Jones (Anthony Higgins), an English governmental attaché working in France, establishes within the first ten minutes of Max that his wife Margaret is lying repeatedly about her afternoon whereabouts. He hires a private detective who predictably tracks Margaret to the same Parisian flat, where she spends hours every day, but for several nights in a row she is the only person who ever enters or leaves. Peter is himself humiliated but also embarrassed for Margaret when she's unknowingly caught in a blatant lie before their young son Nelson (Christopher Hovik). He elects to surprise Margaret in her love-nest. As he knocks and calls at the door of her bedroom, both he and we are surprised at the cool equanimity with which she beckons him inside. Neither ashamed nor defiant nor apologetic, Margaret stares back at her husband with an arch but fathomless serenity—do I even need to tell you she is played by Charlotte Rampling? Naked beneath a white down comforter, she seems to be alone in the bed until Peter doffs the duvet and reveals her paramour: a screeching chimpanzee named Max.

Peter remains the focal character through the rest of Max, mon amour, which means the Ferreri and Ôshima films don't function as complementary His 'n Hers tales of perverse desire so much as they serve as flipside narratives of male solipsism and male insecurity. Max may also intend a more specific satire of English male diffidence, or of upper-class demands for seemly behavior even amid the most outrageous circumstances. Peter, obviously horrified by his wife's openly sexual liaison, is not up for a fight, and Margaret isn't prepared to budge anyway, although the film presents her staunchness with frigid detachment, as a philosophical problem to be faced rather than a woman's spirited defense of her own pleasures. The couple agrees to transport Max in a steel-barred minivan to a newly outfitted room in their grand Parisian apartment, complete with a metal portcullis to keep Max inside. Margaret enjoys private afternoon sojourns behind the locked door of this room, even when she is home alone with Nelson. Occasionally the three take tea together, woman, child, and hirsute lover, and Peter learns to feel comfortable joining them. As long as word doesn't get out, the Joneses either believe this arrangement can work in the long term or else Peter is banking on such tremendous favor accuring to him through his extravagant patience with Margaret and Max's affair that she will come back to him. Or at least continue to give him equal time. Or at least not throw him out.

The major problem with Max, mon amour, and there are a lot of problems, is that Ôshima appears so tentative about all of his implied angles on the film's outlandish premise. It's no surprise that he holds back from a full frontal, In the Realm of the Senses-style confrontation with cross-species eroticism, although short of Isabelle Huppert, you have to believe Rampling would be as willing an accomplice as possible in such an extreme representation. It's much more typical of the intellectual screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (Belle de jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) to abstract desire into a mental and perceptual puzzle rather than a shocking collision of bodies, but by making Margaret so remote, the puzzle is not only deprived of half its pieces, but one suspects they are the most interesting pieces. Poking fun at Peter's perturbed accommodations of a situation he clearly cannot stand is insufficient as a long-range tactic, especially since the character has been written (albeit unpersuasively) as a public figure who has other motivations not to pull this human-animal fiasco even further into his house than it's already traveled. You can't spoof a character so wanly and inconsistently drawn, which remains the case even as Peter discloses his own reasons for bringing the action closer: he is desperate, whether out of envy or prurience, to watch whatever it is a woman does in the heat of passion with an animal. Margaret resists and dislikes his voyeuristic cravings, and so does the film, which is no more comfortable sliding into Peter's salaciously curious perspective than it is eager to penetrate Margaret's vantage of earnest if unimaginable longing, or that of their perplexed child, or that of their badly shaken maid (late-80s Almodóvar muse Victoria Abril, overdoing it, and still rather flat).

The guiding template for the movie is the over-bright, unevocative color cinematography by Godard's and Truffaut's legendary lensing accomplice, Raoul Coutard. He so softens the focus and fruits up the colors that we're closer to telenovela territory than to the comic theatrical elegance that Max might have opted for, and may even have been striving for, as an equal-opportunity distancing effect from all the perversions at which it quietly chuckles, without ever thinking of anything to say. The film looks and feels like a sitcom with no punchlines; all it has to trade is a bemused impassivity. Admittedly, this aesthetic isn't incapable of bringing the material to life. The movie's one real achievement is a very funny sequence, quite typical of Carrière, when Peter and Margaret convene a dinner party—she in a high-necked, ankle-length, one-sleeved, magenta dress with geometric cutouts that is every fantasy and nightmare you've ever had about 80s fashions among the Cabinet Minister class. Max is shrieking too loudly in his chamber for the guests to ignore what they are hearing, or for the hosts to keep passing him off as some stray outside, or some neighbor's pet. Giving up the ghost, but only by pretending Max is a cutting-edge extravagance purchased with Nelson in mind, they release the chimp to the dinner table. The ensemble playing their friends, including the longstanding comic star Fabrice Luchini, are an entertaining mix of skeptics, wasps, buffoons, jealous lovers, and other zestily rendered types, and their reactions are a joy, especially when they're so preoccupied with whatever the big story is in their own individual lives that they don't really clock what is happening before their eyes. Nonetheless, as they watch, Max's own desire for Margaret, another facet of the premise that has previously passed unremarked, makes itself known through a series of amorous embraces and tender kisses on her lips, to her combined pleasure and embarrassment. (The animal is very convincingly played by an actress, Ailsa Berk, inside a totally plausible monkey suit.)

The good, the bad, and the weird add together in this sequence in a way Max might be aiming for elsewhere but badly missing, and the impenetrability of whatever is passing between this woman and this ape makes more sense in the context of a dinner party where you can't just spill all the beans, and even the camera can only probe so far. The most successful version of the movie, even if it might have suggested a bald retread of Carrière's work with Buñuel, might have stayed inside that dinner party as a framing context of tension, concealment, and pretended disavowals of the elephant in the room (or, as it were, the chimpanzee). Since I left Max, mon amour unconvinced that there really was a feature waiting to be hatched from this material, I would have welcomed the addition of other personalities and plotlines that Ôshima and Carrière briefly import via this memorable, ultimately shocked cohort of fellow diners. But all too soon, they get tossed from the film to make more time for limp, time-filling sequences among the Joneses, and another one, dubious and mishandled, in which Peter secretly hires a prostitute of sunny disposition in hopes that she, at least, will show him what it looks like when a woman puts the "mate" back in primate.

The finale of Max, mon amour is both weirder and more ridiculous than anything that has preceded it, involving sick relatives, distressing escapes, soul-killing rear-projections of driving through Paris, and an unaccountably cheerful tonal idiom, as though everyone's making a movie where Annette Funicello loses her dog but hopes her boyfriend will help her to find him, because boy is he a great dog. By this point, the failure of nerve is so profound, to include the final exchange between Margaret and Peter, that it's even less clear that Max was ever interested in demonstrating any nerve at all. Perhaps Ôshima and his collaborators thought the most subversive handling of this premise would be to construct a film where a woman has sex with a monkey every day for hours, and everyone, including the filmmakers, treat this not as a remarkable flouting of basic codes but as a PG-13 spin on every story out there where a tyke, a tomboy, or an entire family falls in love with an animal. If you've wondered what kind of continental TV pilot Sherwood Schwartz might have devised from watching Zoo, here's your answer. But if you ask me, to handle this concept in this way with this level of available talent is only barely less perverse than whatever Margaret does or does not do every afternoon with Max, her amour. Grade: C–

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
Max is too peculiar in conception and too riddled with sphinxlike close-ups, willful suspensions of pace, and other suggestions of intriguing directorial intent to toss it completely aside, at least as a strange case to ponder. But that's all it is—a strange case, not a movie—and it's not even half as strange as by all rights it should be. Nor is it strange in most of the right ways.

P.S. Was it something I said? The news of Sherwood Schwartz's death hit within an hour of my publishing this review—the first time I've ever mentioned him by name in my life, I think, and surely the only time he's ever been linked to Oshima. I would say the first time he's been linked to comic bestiality, too, but with Lenny Bruce and Karen Finley and Tracy Morgan in the world, who could prove it? R.I.P. Mr. Schwartz. May heaven be full of Bradys and free of horny monkeys.

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