Gérard Depardieu gets out of bed and the film cuts to black. Philippe Sarde’s percussive score plays over the opening credits of Ciao Maschio, or Bye Bye Monkey, or Rêve de Signe, as the titles read on the 2009 Kino Lorber DVD of Marco Ferreri’s 1978 masterpiece. An international coproduction shot in English and filmed in New York in the fall of 1977, a time and place now wrought with putrid nostalgia. There was nothing good about the destruction and violence of that decade in New York (except for the July 1977 blackout accelerating the development of hip-hop in the city), but to this day people from all over the world move there to get not even the fumes, but a simulation of the city they’ve seen in commercials and on album covers. Ten years ago, it might’ve been because of Lena Dunham and her Girls. Five, it might’ve been Greta Gerwig and Frances Ha. Now, maybe Ladybird? The shared concept and image of New York itself?
Among them, only Ladybird follows the familiar story: “outcast” (relative) teen from a lower middle-class family in Pasadena escapes to NYU at the end. Dunham’s series and Dunham herself were finally something honest about the level of wealth, nepotism, and vapidity of contemporary New York society. This was a sickness previously relegated to the Upper part of the island—now the “artists” had become infected, too. Everyone had money on Girls, but few talked about it. In comparison, Gerwig’s 2012 film felt like the fantasy of one of the doe-eyed prospective freshman ready to yell from their dorm rooms in the East Village at six a.m. and get some rent-controlled lifers to tell them to shut the fuck up, accent and all.
There are many kinds of New York movies, but two I’m particularly fond of are Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977), and Ferreri’s Bye Bye Monkey. Both take place almost entirely below Canal St., and the west side of the World Trade Center complex feature heavily. Ferreri’s film, despite featuring a “proper” narrative, is enormously sad (Akerman’s film, in which she reads letters from her mother over long static shots of Lower Manhattan, has a narrative, but there are no actors or visible characters). The vast loneliness of the city and its monumental skyline are just as important as Depardieu and co-star Marcello Mastroianni.
What happens? Not much. Depardieu, frail and bedazzled at 28, falls in with an experimental theater troupe run by Gail Lawrence, an actress who mostly worked in adult film but excels here as the predator: despite Depardieu’s primate tics, he’s the one who’s dominated not just by a gang of women, but women who intellectualize raping him. They don’t have a particular reason or any malice, they just want something to do. Their art needs meaning. “What should we talk about?” “Let’s talk about rape.” Silence. “Has anyone here been raped?” Depardieu is pacing, apparently oblivious, eating a piece of cake during this discussion. Lawrence suggests they rape a man. They choose Depardieu despite his reluctance, and eventually he ends up on the floor with Lawrence on top of him. He’s passed out when she says, “See? It can be beautiful.”
When he wakes up, he slaps every one of the women in the troupe he can find, and then he rapes Lawrence, but she enjoys it and they eventually start dating and have a child together. Depardieu finds the dead body of King Kong on the beach that is now Battery Park, and Philippe Sarde’s boat horns play their dirge as we see this beast under the Twin Towers and the Woolworth Building and 33 Thomas St. Depardieu finds a smaller monkey, a live monkey, and his monkey dream begins. He takes care of it, but there’s a rat problem in the city. Eventually, he loses focus, and the rats eat the monkey. He’s devastated, and goes to his “friend” at the wax museum, and they both die in a wildfire that consumes the entire building. Lawrence and their child begin again on the beach, naked and no longer afraid.
Besides Ferreri’s typical comic-strip touches—like using a doll with X’s instead of eyes to show the body of the monkey being eaten by rats—Bye Bye Monkey stands apart from his other post-1968 visions of an abandoned, hollowed out future without any hope. Dillinger is Dead (1969) follows a man that might as well be going “crazy in quarantine,” or just as it was 51 years ago, a satire of consumerism and a critique of a culture with no past. Michel Piccoli’s character in that film makes gas masks, so he’s involved in the industry of death, not health care, and he doesn’t love his wife (even though she’s played by Anita Pallenberg), and he doesn’t even get that much out of his romps with the maid (Annie Girardot).
There’s nothing left for this man, so disconnected from the natural world and unable to fulfill his “destiny,” or relieve his natural urges. So he cooks, listens to music, paints his gun, watches home movies, sleeps with the maid, gets bored, shoots his wife in her sleep, and escapes on a boat to Tahiti. This is all fantasy, because there’s no escape for this proto-Patrick Bateman. There’s no analogous figure in Bye Bye Monkey, it’s the city and ways of lives themselves that feature and have no future. Just as King Kong washed up on the shore, and his son (?) was eaten by rats, that beach is now Battery Park, but one day it’ll be underwater, and those buildings will be gone, while some—like the Woolworth Building and certainly 33 Thomas St.—will remain.
But most won’t. That’s okay, it’s not all bad. Some must escape, some must die: Luigi (Mastroianni) hangs himself in his tiny garden underneath a painted “PARK HERE” sign, while Depardieu dies by his own monkey stupidity, tripping over candles, lighter fluid, and curtains in a wax museum. Before burning with him, the “historian” is depicted as a dilettante, a fat slob who bloviates about “beasts” on the beach and the “fall of man,” all while wearing Roman robes and getting blowjobs from his students (to be sure, she, like the theater troupe, appear to enjoy their transgressions against the “old way of doing things” immensely). Depardieu, in his primal nature, and Mastroianni, in his old-world Italian romanticism, can’t take this new metropolis with so many buildings and so few people.
Like many of Ferreri’s films, Bye Bye Monkey feels futuristic today, 43 years after its release. Its sadness is not just of a New York gone by, or a Lower Manhattan alternately sculpted and obliterated since, but of the whole world passing into what we have now: no future, no new ideas, primal hardwired urges without any opportunity for practice or relief. It ends at the beginning, with a woman and her child, naked on the beach. A blank page is offered for lack of any better suggestions. They have yet to come.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith