Today’s selection of two trangressive love stories (both released in 1986) comes courtesy of Kat Ellinger’s Cineslut Film Club, selected to fit February’s chosen theme of Tainted Love. But while “tainted” may well be an appropriate descriptive term for the twisted affections presented in Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986), it fails to convey the sweetness of approach Japanese new wave director Ōshima Nagisa takes to the unconventional relationship depicted in Max, Mon Amour [Makkusu, Mon Amūru] (1986).
Peter Jones (Anthony Higgins) is the British ambassador to France, making preparations for an upcoming visit by Queen Elizabeth II. He shares a lavishly appointed apartment with his wife Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), their son Nelson (Christopher Hovik) and their live-in maid Maria (Victoria Abril). Peter’s suspicions are aroused when Margaret’s friend Hélène (Nicole Calfan) calls looking for her, shortly before Margaret returns home claiming to have spent the last few hours with Hélène. Peter hires a detective (Pierre Étaix), who informs him that Margaret has taken a second apartment where she spends two hours every day – although he was unable to identify her suspected lover, since at no point in the past 10 days has anybody other than Margaret entered or left the apartment. Peter, who has himself been carrying on an affair with his secretary Camille (Diana Quick), turns up to the apartment to force a confrontation and a civilised discussion about the conduct of their mutual relationships – but the meeting turns out rather differently than expected when Margaret pulls back the sheets to reveal Max (Ailsa Berk) to be a chimpanzee!
It’s worth noting at this point that while Ōshima is not one to automatically shy away from explicit depictions of sex – as seen most notably in the acclaimed In the Realm of the Senses [Ai no korīda] (1976) – Max, Mon Amour is not that type of movie. Although Margaret calmly confirms that their relationship is a sexual one, she refuses to discuss the details and nothing of the sort is ever seen on screen – much to the frustration of her husband, the others who learn of her relationship with Max, and apparently of many reviewers. What she is willing to reveal is the story of how they got together, a classic example of eyes meeting across a crowded room – with the room in this case being a zoo. After several follow-up visits, during which they formed a clearly visible personal connection, one of the zookeepers offered her the opportunity to buy Max, who came to the zoo after an indeterminate time with a circus but has been unable or unwilling to forge any connections with the other primates. This financial transaction aside, at no point is there any hint that Margaret sees Max as her property or that Max is being exploited – all of their interactions are presented as mutual and loving.
After recovering from the shock of his discovery, Peter suggests that it’s ridiculous to pay for a second apartment when Max could simply move in with them. Although the couple are clearly used to maintaining civil relations with each other’s lovers, Margaret is dubious of the wisdom of this decision but willing to accept his assurances that nothing will change. Peter, of course, is far more conflicted than he is willing to admit to himself and cannot help continuing to poke metaphorical sticks at the subject of what exactly they get up to. At Margaret’s birthday dinner he tells their friends they have a new resident and prods her into bringing Max out to meet their guests – a situation which goes reasonably well until the late arrival of Margaret’s ex-lover Archibald (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) prompts displays of jealous possessiveness from Max, leading their dinner guests to form their own awkward suspicions. Archibald later returns to visit Margaret bearing flowers with a psychoneurologist in tow, egotistically assured that her relationship with Max could only stem from sexual frustration over his absence, and is comically uncomprehending of her frosty response.
Peter’s obsession with Margaret and Max begins to spill over into his relationship with Camille. A would-be casual question about sex with monkeys during a trip to the zoo causes her to believe that he’s exploring a previously unsuspected fetish, leading to the adorably supportive decision to invite a zoologist (Bernard Haller) to be present at their next liaison so that Peter can ask for all the factual information he wants. Although this encounter strengthens his relationship with Camille, it fails to resolve his obsession. After politely turning down a proposition from sex worker Françoise (Sabine Haudepin), it occurs to him that if his wife won’t let him watch her with Max, maybe he could watch Françoise have sex with Max instead – but although she proves surprisingly game (doubling her price with a shrug after asking whether he’s dangerous), Max remains faithful. Peter’s ongoing obsession begins to affect his work and takes him to some dark places, but after bottoming out he begins to think of Max more as a person than an animal, ultimately putting his own job on the line to save Max’s life.
Ōshima makes use of this surprisingly sweet and joyful love story to explore the theme of voyeurism, opening the film with a giant keyhole through which can be seen a purple-tinted eye. After the title of the movie appears, the “A” in “MAX” transforms into a keyhole which is unlocked, through which we glimpse each cast member’s face as their name appears on the screen. Scenes of Paris follow, culminating with a final zoom through the keyhole towards the phallic protuberance of Cleopatra’s Needle before the key is turned again and we meet Peter cleaning his rifle (no it’s not a euphemism). Ōshima proceeds to spend much of the rest of the film teasing both the characters and the audience with Margaret’s (and his own) resolute refusal to indulge their prurient curiosity about her sex life with Max – his sole concession to these urges being a half-naked Françoise’s attempt to excite Max’s interest in a scene which refuses to see sex as anything shameful. The keyhole motif returns once more at the conclusion of the end credits as a red key (the colour of the title in the opening credits) locks a blue keyhole, informing the audience that their glimpse into these people’s lives has come to a definitive close. Considered in the light of this theme, the howls of complaint from critics who fixated on the lack of chimpanzee sex are hilarious, completely oblivious that they’ve identified themselves with the role Peter occupies at the beginning of the film and, by failing to follow him on his personal internal journey, have missed the point entirely.
Following on the heels of the prisoner-of-war movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence [Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu] (1983), which is probably best remembered these days for featuring David Bowie as its lead, Max, Mon Amour was followed by a thirteen year gap before Ōshima completed his final feature film Taboo [Gohatto] (1999) which explored the topic of homosexuality among 19th century samurai. Ōshima’s co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière has an extensive and distinguished career as a screenwriter, working on such diverse films as Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum [Die Blechtrommel] (1979), Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata (1989) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1990).
Leading a strong cast is Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter), no stranger to portraying taboo-ridden relationships, whose serene insistence on the normality of the central ménage à trois conveys real feeling while selling a central concept which is bound to create audience resistance. Anthony Higgins, who portrayed the arrogant artist in Peter Greenaway’s class conflict puzzle box The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), effectively navigates the potentially contradictory and alienating aspects of his character to come across as a likeable person who has some issues to work through. Victoria Abril (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! [¡Átame!]), not long before her international breakthrough as the star of three Almodóvar films, is haplessly sympathetic as the put-upon maid who is allergic to chimpanzees. Among the smaller roles, French comedian and filmmaker Pierre Étaix (Le Grand Amour) is charming as the detective, while Sabine Haudepin (The Last Metro [Le Dernier Métro]) brings a joie de vivre to her role as Françoise. But it’s impossible to conclude this role call without drawing attention to the uncredited performance of Ailsa Berk as Max the chimpanzee, a vital component in making the central relationship believable. Berk, a dancer and puppeteer, had prior form as a primate, having played Tarzan’s adoptive mother Kala in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). She would go on to play Aslan the lion for the BBC’s The Chronicles of Narnia (1988-1990) before becoming the go-to choreographer for creature movement in 35 episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who (2005-2017).
Moving from the sweet to the decidedly perverse, Almodóvar’s Matador opens on former bullfighter Diego Montes (Nacho Martínez) masturbating furiously to a personal VHS mixtape of women being killed in various slasher movies (most notably Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace [6 donne per l’assassino]) while the opening credits play over his contorted face. This is immediately succeeded by a scene in which Diego lectures to his students on bullfighting techniques, cross-cut with lawyer María (Assumpta Serna) picking up one of his students. As the lecture progresses, her seduction parallels his instructions, climaxing as Diego explains the correct technique for despatching a bull while María demonstrates on her unwitting lover and rides him to completion.
At this point Almodóvar switches his attention to Diego’s student Ángel (Antonio Banderas), a young man subjected to an oppressive religious upbringing who idolises his mentor and seeks his advice on approaching women. His response to the singularly unhelpful advice to “treat her like a bull” is to spy on his neighbour Eva (Eva Cobo) – Diego’s girlfriend – while she gets changed, follow her into the street, drag her into an alleyway and attempt to rape her, before fainting at the sight of blood. Bullied by his mother (Julieta Serrano) into attending church the following day, he passes up attending confession to go to the police station and turn himself in. Eva and her mother (Chus Lampreave) view the whole situation as a nuisance and decline to press charges, leaving Ángel bereft, until he spots the photographs of two of his fellow male students on the desk in front of the bemused police superintendent (Eusebio Poncela) and confesses to killing them, as well as two female students who have gone missing.
Fascinated that somebody should confess to killing her two victims, María volunteers her services as Ángel’s lawyer, revelling in the negative press attention this earns her from female journalists who assume her client is guilty. Catching a glimpse of María while dropping off Eva after their last date (which saw him asking her to pretend to be a corpse), Diego follows María to a cinema showing King Vidor’s western Duel in the Sun (1946), where they stand rapt and unaware of each other in opposite doorways at the back of the cinema as the film’s central lovers die in each other’s arms after the climactic shootout. After an abortive encounter between the two fails to result in either sex or death, Diego pulls out his old video tapes to watch himself being gored by a bull, the incident which ended his career as a matador. The chance recognition of María among the spectators cements his obsession with her and he barges into her office, refusing to leave when threatened with a gun but finally relenting when she turns it on herself. His parting gift of the matador cape she had admired earlier seals their recognition of each other as driven by the same urges. Diego becomes increasingly unconcerned with the ongoing police investigation, which points more and more clearly towards him after the two missing women are discovered buried on his property, and the two serial murderers find themselves drawn inescapably towards each other in a spiralling collision of eros and thanatos.
Almodóvar uses this typically lurid subject matter to interrogate the contradictory urges underlying Spanish society, exploring the ways in which the national institutions of bullfighting and Catholicism can become sublimated vessels for suppressed sexual urges. His exploration of individuals who are internally divided is referenced on a societal level by the fashion show in which Eva is modelling, which has been built on the theme of “Divided Spain” – her arrival with a cut on her face is greeted with delight by the director, who instructs the makeup artist to emphasise it and work it into her look. (In addition to modelling her dress, Eva’s role is to shoot the male model playing her boyfriend before being murdered in turn by a mob – even in the fashion world, it seems, there’s no escaping the link between sex and death.)
Ángel’s mother Berta is an obsessive flagellant constantly bombarding him with the message that both he and his deceased father are weak, evil creatures who deserve to be punished. She has no problem with believing Ángel to be a murderer (if anything, she seems resigned to it as a preordained inevitability) even when all evidence points to the contrary – in particular his propensity to faint at the first sign of blood (which she views as a moral failing). She consistently demonises sex, yet seems to take a perverse joy in putting her leg up on the table in front of her son while strapping a cilice chain around her upper thigh. Growing up in such a confusing and maternally oppressive environment has left Ángel incapable of understanding how to process his own urges. Seeking direction from his substitute father figure, his sexual incomprehension inevitably leads him to misinterpret Diego’s already-dodgy advice, explaining (but not excusing) his clumsy oedipally-motivated assault upon Eva.
Bullfighting is shown to be an overt mixture of violence and sexuality – an exhibition of athletic masculinity combined with the calculated slaughter of a powerful animal. Matadors – whether professionals, students, or retired – are seen to have instant status as sex symbols, a point Almodóvar emphasises with lingering shots on the tightly-clad groins and buttocks of the matadors-in-training. As a retired bullfighter, Diego retains his sexual appeal but clearly feels a loss of power. His inability to let go of his traumatic wounding and symbolic loss of potency, constantly replayed on a worn-out VHS recording, transmutes into an eroticised fascination with death which finds an outlet in killing. For María, as an avid appreciator of matadors, Diego’s goring became a similarly charged primal event, prompting her own form of ritualised sex murders. Linked by a shared trauma which has deformed their lives, their eventual unification and mutual self-immolation becomes their twisted erotic destiny.
There are plenty of familiar faces here from Almodóvar’s body of work, so I’ll just note the general high quality of their performances rather than go into them in detail – but as I haven’t mentioned her yet, I should note that his frequent collaborator Carmen Maura has a small role as Ángel’s psychiatrist. Antonio Banderas is of course the most recognisable name to an international audience, but this was still very early in his career and for such a central role, he doesn’t really have very much to do – fans of his work would be better served by checking out Almodóvar’s next film, Law of Desire [La ley del deseo] (1987), which sees him in a larger role playing another repressed individual who becomes obsessed with the director of the film which gave him his homosexual awakening. The only featured actor here who doesn’t appear in any other Almodóvar films is Eva Cobo – who I was surprised to discover also starred in Jackie Chan’s Armour of God II: Operation Condor [Fei ying gai wak] (1991)!
Matador was the first Almodóvar film I ever saw, back in my early university days. Although (unsurprisingly) it made a strong impression on me, I wasn’t really sure how to process it or what I thought of it – I got stuck at the surface level sensationalism and couldn’t work out whether I liked it or, indeed, whether it was any good. Coming back to it roughly 30 years later, I found it to be threaded through with elements which resonated with each other to create a much richer experience than I expected. A few days on from watching it, it’s still ticking away in the back of my mind, and I have no doubt that some of the thoughts I’ve attempted to articulate here will continue to shift and refine themselves for a little while yet. I won’t attempt to sell it as a masterpiece – Almodóvar considers it to be one of his weakest films, and there are certainly some story elements which could do with a polish – but it’s far more nuanced and rewarding of attention than the details of plot might lead you to believe.