Stars: Charlotte Rampling and Anthony Higgins
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.
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.
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.
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.