Surprisingly, as an excessively sexual and carnivorous Italian man, I had been ignorant of Ferreri’s work until my soon to be roommate Doug ranted to me about a 1973 Ferreri film entitled, “The Grande Bouffe.” A film whose plot is centered around four middle-aged men who lock themselves into a villa and then proceed to fatalistically gorge on food and wine while screwing until they die. A kind of stay-at-home, non-violent, Italian version of “The Wild Bunch,” with these four men, who have become tired of their lives, end it all without firing a shot, which if you think about it, was more in line with the softening seventies male. If the passing of masculinity into the sensitive seventies had not been metaphorically shot down there, Ferreri’s next film, 1976’s “The Perfect Woman,” went so far with this new emasculation that our director would make hunky French film star, Gerard Depardieu, cut off his own manhood with an electric kitchen knife after another deflating argument with his wife.
For his first U.S. film, the dystopian “Bye Bye Monkey,” Ferreri would keep up this same trend of metaphorically depicting the downward spiral of masculinity, and why wouldn’t he? After all, wasn’t the United States responsible for setting the world standard in that decade for helping the loafer clad males get in touch with their feelings through overpriced weekend sensitivity training classes? For this film, Ferreri reenlists the beefy Depardieu to play the down and out New York electrician, Lafayette (sarcastically named for the gallant French General who would help American revolutionaries win the war of independence) who works two jobs: one, as an electrician at a Roman Empire wax museum and another as the lighting technician for an all female feminist acting troupe. While men in hazmat suits roam the streets hunting down rats during an epidemic, our feminist theater group laments the fact that they have not experienced any of the real hardships that modern women have faced, so when they come up blank for a theme for what their next performance should be, they sheepishly select rape. The “bad” news is that none of them have been victims of rape, so they decide to rape their electrician, Lafayette, after a member of the company knocks him out.
The next day Lafayette is angered by the events of the previous evening and takes a walk with his older friend Mr. Luigi (Marcello Mastroianni) on the beach near the World Trade Center where they discover a life-sized King Kong lying on the beach dead, with Kong, of course, as the ultimate symbol of a tough guy from a distant place who hit NYC and got the prettiest girl in town. Clutched in Kong’s hand though would not be scantily clad Fay Wray but instead a tiny monkey baby whom Mr. Luigi refuses to take care of due to his advanced age, so Lafayette takes the job and plays mother to the orphaned baby, raising it like a human child. Once home and domesticated, Lafayette becomes the target of admiration for Angelica (Gail Lawrence, better known as Abigail Clayton during her porn star years), one of the theater troupe who originally spurned Lafayette’s advances but is now interested due to what I can determine is Lafayette’s new found maternal instinct. This is where we really see Ferreri, drawing the hard line between men and women. Not during the female on male rape but here as a faux mother is where Lafayette succumbs to his sensitive side and becomes more accessible to the women around him.
On several occasions in the film, Lafayette seeks out the advice of his boss at the wax museum, Mr. Flaxman (James Coco), so when Lafayette arrives with his new monkey to work, Mr. Flaxman tells Lafayette that the monkey will eventually lead to his downfall (loss of masculinity for those following in the cheap seats). Lafayette heeds his boss’s advice and tries to abandon the monkey, the soon be named Cornelius (Planet of the Apes anyone?) But when Lafayette tries to leave Cornelius in the park, Cornelius cries and runs to Lafayette who just cannot leave his new baby, so his motherhood is now complete. Lafayette tries to go about his life, but with Cornelius with him, the prophecy of Mr. Flaxman comes true and everything goes south for Lafayette. In fact his friend Mr. Luigi, a clear symbol of the masculinity of the past, sees his penchant for non-vegetarian eating and his inability to find love in the new land as a harbinger for his eventual checking out of this world. Even Mr. Flaxman sees the writing on the wall when he is blackmailed into changing the faces of his wax sculptures Julius Caesar and Nero into Nixon and Kennedy.
1996 Interview With Marco Ferreri About “Bye Bye Monkey”
Ferreri cleverly uses Depardieu and Mastroianni as examples of two generations of actors from Europe, which was still going through an ultra machismo period, behaving here like they would in a contemporary film from their home countries. As outsiders, it is then up to their characters to decide in “Bye Bye Monkey” on whether they will acquiesce to the way of the seventies male or just stop living all together. What is made clear then by Ferreri with his “punch you in the head but you still find it uneasily interesting” symbolism, is that empires will always fall, and it is the rats who come out of every civilization that expires. Of course Marco Ferreri is not a soothsayer like his Mr. Flaxman, but the now eerie image of the former World Trade Centers looming in the background during many of “Bye Bye Monkey’s” key moments, somewhat bear out Marco Ferreri’s prediction of an American empire, once lead by strong men, fading out in the not too distant future.