Stars: Charlotte Rampling and Anthony Higgins
Happy birthday to Charlotte Rampling, surely one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors in an era where neither adjective is deemed beneficial by most filmgoers. She turned seventy on the 5th and I wanted to celebrate by reviewing one of her films. There are plenty of odd little gems in her filmography to choose from, whether they were made in the ’70s such as ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Zardoz or The Night Porter, the ’80s like He Died with His Eyes Open, Angel Heart and Mascara, or even later, such as Asphalt Tango, Swimming Pool or Melancholia. I ended up picking Max Mon Amour, a movie which will turn thirty this year. It’s a truly international picture, made in France by a Japanese director with three English leads, who alternate between the English and French languages throughout, and supporting actors from France, Spain and Italy. It’s also a surreal picture which I saw soon after it was released and didn’t understand in the slightest. It’s surely about time to revisit it and see if I’m now able to understand what it aimed to do.
And, long story short, I still don’t have a clue. It’s simple to explain what happens but not so easy to find the meaning behind it all and there are a bunch of alternative solutions to the puzzle. However, I’m now of the opinion that there isn’t an intended solution, as it follows the surrealist approach of Luis Buñuel in not only the wild and confrontational subject matter but also the style in which it was filmed, which is an elegant, simple and straightforward one with no cinematic gimmickry anywhere to be found. The theory is that it isn’t needed, because everything should be utterly routine except for the one wild aspect which leaps out as utterly ridiculous. That’s the one on which we should focus, not merely for its own sake but to see how everyone else interacts with it. Many of Buñuel’s best films, such as The Exterminating Angel, are inexplicable when taken literally but rewarding and insightful when read as social commentary. It’s a safe bet that this works best that way too, if only I could decide what it’s actually commenting on.
We’re here for Peter and Margaret Jones, an English couple living in France where he works as a diplomat and she works as, well, a diplomat’s wife. They live in a gorgeous house, furnished with antiques and old masters, which is kept in pristine condition by Maria, a full time maid. And, as is expected in polite French society, they have lovers on the side. Peter’s clearly having an affair with his secretary, Camille, while his wife has had dalliances with Mr Archibald, who’s been absent for a while, working in the Lebanon. Each is aware of the infidelities of the other and they’re so polite that they can all sit down to dinner together on Margaret’s birthday. However, Peter discovers that his wife is also getting up to something else on the sly, lying about where she’s been and what she’s been doing, and that bugs him. He hires a private detective who is able to track down the shabby place she’s rented in a shabby neighbourhood and Peter goes there to catch them in the act. All straightforward so far, right?
Well, he finds that she’s cheating on him with a chimpanzee named Max and everything gets continually weirder from there. Certainly this is a surreal comedy of manners, because things proceed in a strangely polite fashion. ‘I thought I knew you well,’ comments Peter over dinner, before suggesting that Max move in with them. Maybe it isn’t just satirising French infidelity but the British stiff upper lip, as Rampling and Anthony Higgins are both English. Is this a race metaphor, given how multicultural it was in France in the eighties; is Max the scandalous thought of a black or Algerian lover just taken to extremes, someone who would, through their mere existence, be a step too far for polite society? Could it be more straightforward: just a commentary on the bestiality fad which swept European pornography in the 1970s? I remember stories of Bodil Joensen, who ran an aptly named animal husbandry business and loved her German shepherd, Spot, and all her animals both sexually and emotionally, both in real life and on film.
I have a couple of better ideas. One is that Margaret lied about her sexual relationship with Max, who she loves like a child, suggesting that their relationship is more like an adoption. For all Peter’s inquisitiveness about whether his wife and the chimp do it or not, he’s more jealous of the love that passes between the pair, even during a gloriously uncomfortable scene at her birthday dinner, at which their guests see just how close they are. Peter reacts later, with a telling line: ‘You never loved me like that.’ A pro is that this English couple have themselves been adopted by France, but a con is that they already have a real son, Nathan, who lives with them. However, their bourgeois politeness leads to little emotional exchange with him, or indeed between each other. It’s not that these parents don’t care about their son, but they talk to Nathan roughly like they talk to their maid, Maria. Perhaps Margaret is rebelling against that relationship and Max is her means of exploring her more emotional side.
Or, perhaps, even more likely, everything we see is a red herring and this is all a way for Margaret, who’s not French, to win her husband back from the French social custom of expected infidelity. This theory has merit but I’d have to watch the whole thing again to see if it really holds true. Certainly, Margaret admits to bestiality but it’s never seen, not by us and not by Peter, who constantly pleads to watch, not because he wants to get his rocks off but because he wants to know that it’s really happening, that the act is even possible with a chimp and what Margaret gets out of it, given that chimps are only supposed to last a few seconds. So could this be an elaborate plan to get her husband so focused on her that Camille becomes just an memory? Certainly Higgins initially plays Peter as unemotionally as a robot but he gets more and more emotional as the picture runs on, while Rampling, who can do Machiavellian in her sleep, stays on an even keel throughout, even as the character who’s emotional, being overtly in love with a chimp.
Who knows? Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-wrote with director Nagisa Oshima, was experienced in the art of the surreal, having written seven films with Luis Buñuel, from 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid through 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977. This seems very much like another one, though Buñuel had died three years before its release, and I intend that as a firm compliment. I think he just had a lot of fun with extrapolation, ways in which to shake the famous French politeness and the bourgeois acceptance of everything. Can there be a more French moment than when Mr Archibald visits his married former lover with a bouquet of roses and a psychoneurologist because he feels she needs help? Why not introduce a prostitute, who attempts to proposition Peter in the street only to find that he brings her home to strip off to make love to Max just so he can see what it would be like? And, of course, have young Nathan interrupt the half naked young lady leaving. What a childhood!
Like every surrealist film, this is certainly not for everyone. It’s not as slow as you might expect, but it’s a very calm movie and audiences used to rapid fire editing and Jerry Springer Show histrionics aren’t going to get this in the slightest. Indie film fans might get turned away by the ostensible subject matter or that relentless calm, but they might get drawn in by the nature of the piece and the performances. Rampling is a glorious cipher throughout, Higgins finds his moments and the combination of Rick Baker’s creature design and Ailsa Berk’s movements work wonders as Max. This chimp looks pretty much like a chimp, as it should, of course, but it’s impressive to have to look closely to realise that it isn’t one, thirty years on. It’s definitely a step up from the old Planet of the Apes movies, even if it isn’t up to the CGI of the latest one. Berk is a dancer and actress, most famous for playing Aslan in the British TV adaptations of Narnia books but also characters in Return of the Jedi, Greystoke and Return to Oz. She deserves more credit.
Bizarrely, the most successful angle to the film may also be its least successful. Oshima was no stranger to controversy, having helmed the art porn movie, In the Realm of the Senses, a decade earlier, and this bestiality comedy could easily have raised as much concern, but it ends up safe and civilised and oddly inoffensive. I don’t think there’s a single swearword uttered and, beyond never seeing any bestiality, we only see one pair of boobs (courtesy of the delightful Sabine Haudepin as Françoise the prostitute) and a single shot of Rampling’s butt as she walks out of a room. In fact, as the film runs on, we actively wonder why we’re not being offended or outraged but instead finding an odd sense of sympathy for this strange family. What husband would allow his unrepentant wife’s lover to move in with them, especially when it’s a chimpanzee? What wife would allow that to happen, especially when their son lives with them? What viewer would accept a bestiality film so inoffensive? Maybe I’m more bourgeois than I thought.