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Married mother Margaret Jones (Charlotte Rampling) is madly in love with a monkey in Nagisa Ôshima’s surprisingly tame Max, Mon Amour

MAX, MON AMOUR (Nagisa Ôshima, 1986)
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Ave. at Second St.
Friday, June 16, 7:00; Friday, June 23, 9:15; Sunday, June 25, 4:30
Series runs June 16-27

It’s rather hard to tell how much Japanese auteur Nagisa Ôshima is monkeying around with his very strange 1986 movie, Max, Mon Amour, a love story between an intelligent, beautiful woman and a chimpanzee. The director of such powerful films as Cruel Story of Youth; Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; Taboo; and In the Realm of the Senses seems to have lost his own senses with this surprisingly straightforward, tame tale of bestiality, a collaboration with master cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot seminal works by Truffaut and Godard; screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who has written or cowritten nearly ninety films by such directors as Pierre Étaix (who plays the detective in Max), Luis Buñuel, Volker Schlöndorff, Philippe Garrel, and Miloš Forman; and special effects and makeup artist extraordinaire Rick Baker, the mastermind behind the 1976 King Kong, the Michael Jackson video Thriller, Ratboy, Hellboy, and An American Werewolf in London, among many others. Evoking Bedtime for Bonzo and Ed more than Planet of the Apes and Gorillas in the Mist, Max, Mon Amour is about a well-to-do English family living in Paris whose lives undergo a rather radical change when husband Peter Jones (Anthony Higgins) catches his elegant wife, Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), in bed with a chimp. Margaret insists that she and the chimp, Max, are madly in love and somehow convinces Peter to let her bring the sensitive yet dangerous beast home, which confuses their son, Nelson (Christopher Hovik), and causes their maid, Maria (Victoria Abril), to break out in ugly rashes. Peter, a diplomat, works for the queen of England, so as he prepares for a royal visit to Paris, he also has to deal with this new addition to his ever-more-dysfunctional family.

Throughout the film, it’s almost impossible to figure out when Ôshima is being serious, when he is being ironic, when he is trying to make a metaphorical point about evolution, or when he is commenting on the state of contemporary aristocratic European society. When Margaret puts on a fur coat, is that a reference to her hypocrisy? Is her affair with a zoo animal being directly compared to Peter’s dalliance with his assistant Camille (Diana Quick)? Even better, is Ôshima relating Max to Her Royal Highness? We are all mammals, after all. Or are Ôshima and Carrière merely riffing on Buñuel’s 1972 surrealist classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which Carrière cowrote? Perhaps Max, Mon Amour is about all of that, or maybe none of it, as Ôshima lays it all out very plainly, as if it is not a completely crazy thing that a woman can have an affair with a chimp and have him become part of the family. Regardless, the film is just plain silly, although it looks pretty great, particularly Rampling wearing gorgeous outfits and a Princess Di do and Quick in hysterically hideous haute couture gone terribly wrong. Meanwhile, Michel Portal’s score mines Laurie Anderson territory. You can decide for yourself whether Max, Mon Amour is a misunderstood masterpiece or an absurd piece of trifle when it kicks off the Anthology Film Archives series “Simian Vérité” on June 16 at 7:00, with repeat screenings June 23 at 9:15 and June 25 at 4:30. The series, guest programmed by Steve Macfarlane of Slant magazine, consists of eleven works that explore “human-primate coexistence,” including George Romero’s Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Terror, Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business, Marco Ferreri’s Bye Bye Monkey, Inoshiro Honda’s King Kong Escapes, and Frederick Wiseman’s Primate.

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