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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Bye, Bye Monkey’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, one man’s trash is another man’s… uhhhh… ummmm… ehhh…

Bye Bye Monkey (aka Ciao Maschio, in Italy, literal title “Goodbye Macho” and Rêve de Singe in France, literal title “Monkey Dream”) (1978)
Distributed by: Fida Cinematografica
Directed by: Marco Ferreri

Anyone else remember how angry everyone got during the “Lower Manhattan Great Ape Wave?”

Back in the late 1970s, there was that time when giant apes littered the ground around the World Trade Center. To put it more accurately, there was time when film makers from Italy would show up and shoot a film with a gigantic ape sprawled on the ground, often with less than spectacular results.

You probably remember this one…

And if you do, you may recall the final scene, when Carlo Rambaldi’s giant mechanical ape for the film (which when actually working appeared for only 15 seconds out of its 2-hour-10-minute run time) was at its most convincing, when it laid there dead:

About a year after that, Marco Ferreri comes into town, puts his ape on the site where Battery Park City was going to be built, and we got…

Note that there may be some emotionally triggering plot points brought up in the description of the film.

We open under the credits watching Lafayette (Gerard Depardieu) getting ready to leave his basement apartment. He gets to the top of the stairs, but has to go back inside when he sees the rat catchers up above:

Yes, in this version of New York, the rats are so bad that they use squads armed with protective clothing and automatic rifles to go after them. Supposedly, they’re pretty good at what they do, as this is the only time they appear in the pic.

Now set with a baseball bat, Lafayette goes to his main job, at a wax museum dedicated to depicting important events from the time of the Roman Empire. He’s friendly with one of the artists working there, Luigi (Marcello Mastroianni), but doesn’t get along as well with his boss, Mr. Flaxman (James Coco).

Lafayette’s main duties include the wiring for the electronics in the exhibit, his brightest achievement being using a slot racing car set and converting into a chariot race around the Circus Maximus.

He has another gig he goes to, handling the lights for a feminist theater collective. We watch them during a rehearsal, followed by everyone taking a break as the players discuss new material.

At one point, the topic of doing a show based around rape comes up. As none of the women in the troupe had ever been raped, they almost decide that this is not something they could expound upon, until they come up with a solution to that: They decide to rape Lafayette.

In the aftermath of the “workshop,” Lafayette is angry, but at the same time becomes attracted a one of the players, Angelica (Abigail Clayton, credited as “Gail Lawrence”). The two start to immediately pursue a graphic physical relationship, as unlike his historically named counterpart, Lafayette isn’t really here…

We follow this with Lafayette walking down to the riverside with three of his friends (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, Avon Long, and Mario Dardanelli) where they discover the carcass of a large ape. Following up the reveal is Luigi, who when he gets there discovers a baby chimpanzee emerging from the corpse’s clenched hand.

Luigi is unfortunately unable to care for the chimp, so Lafayette must take the toddler and raise him the way a would were the fondling a human. Which, considering what we’ve seen of him so far, probably bodes ill for the youngling down the road…

From this point on, the threads set up in the film amble forward with very little momentum. About the only new development Ferrari puts in his script (on which he collaborated with Gerard Brach and Rafael Azcona) is a visit to the wax museum by Paul Jefferson (an uncredited William Berger) from the State Foundation of Psychological Research. Jefferson coerces convinces Flaxman to make subtle modifications over time to realign his figures, so that Caesar resembles John F. Kennedy and Nero looks like Richard Nixon.

Other than that, the film feels more like a bad improv than a coherent story, as things shamble along until the last 20 minutes, at which point things come to a head in the most provocative, disturbing, upsetting manner that Ferrari could inflict upon his characters.

The best word to describe how Ferrari handles his project is “transgressive,” which could probably apply to just about any film of his…

Marco Ferrari on the set of the film, October 1977, from New York Times

Indeed, Ferrari’s corpus is loaded with anarchic depravity, where sex can be deadly and anything held sacred gets lit on fire sooner or later. Each film is set in a nightmarish realm where nothing can be trusted and getting attached to any character should be discouraged. A complete nihilist, one doesn’t so much see a Ferrari film to get a story as they see one to watch things shatter; imagine a YouTube channel where every video results in a catastrophic disintegration of a product, while also grievously harming the hosts in as cringe-inducing a manner as possible despite Alphabet’s best efforts to apply some moderation.

This film is no different. The New York that Ferrari shot in is depicted as the survivor of an apocalypse where the rats have come out on top, but everyone tries to carry on as best as possible. It’s a city where the emotionally detached can’t help but see the parallels between the fall of Rome and the end of American exceptionalism. In many ways, it’s an exaggeration of what people thought life was like in the city in the 1970s, yet it has an atmosphere that resonates with anyone coming to New York post-COVID. In this way, the film has aged a lot better than expected.

Theatrical poster for Italian release

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the film has not held up as well. Ferrari is so intent on busting things apart without taking a moment to build anything up to the point we’d care, there’s nothing or no one to attach to in order to keep our attention. The cast was abandoned by Ferrari to his penchant for nihilism, and had to struggle to find their characters. Depardieu’s Lafayette gave his lines either in broken English or blowing a whistle in ways to suggest his state of mind at the time, a brave but futile effort, while the professionals soldier on as best they can in a losing battle with the plot.

Ferrari’s approach to film, where nothing matters as it gets destroyed in as awful a manner as possible, is the product from another time that wouldn’t be able to be filmed today.

It’s as much an ancient museum piece in our age of CGI VFX as having giant apes lying around below Canal Street…

 

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