At home in Paris one day, British diplomat Peter Jones (Anthony Higgins) receives a telephone call from a friend of his wife, Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), wondering where she is. Peter's suspicions are aroused, as Margaret had told him she was spending the afternoon with her friend, and when she walks through the front door soon after she maintains the story. Peter hires a private detective to follow her, and discovers that she spends two hours a day in a tiny, rented apartment, so Peter goes over there to confront her and the man he supposes she is having an affair with. Imagine his surprise when he enters the bedroom and sees his wife in bed with a chimpanzee...
Scripted by Jean-Claude Carriere and director Nagisa Ôshima, Max Mon Amour is a strange film indeed, a satire on the middle classes that is unexpectedly mild and even playful, considering its controversial subject matter. When Peter finds out about his wife's lover, he doesn't fly into a fit of jealous rage, he approaches the situation in a typically diplomatic frame of mind, and insists that Max, the chimp, join the family as a pet. Obviously the film makers couldn't train a real chimp to play the role, so Max is portrayed by a bloke in a good quality ape suit designed by Rick Baker, making the film seem like Tarzan in reverse, where the jungle denizen goes to live in civilisation instead of the other way around.
Margaret explains that she found Max as a refugee from a closed down circus, and it was love at first sight. The contrast between polite society and the animal instincts of the ape is uppermost, as can be seen when Max is invited to share the table with the dinner party the Joneses are holding one evening. One guest has been guessing the breed of dogs that bark and howl around the locality - we have previously seen another knocked to the ground in the rain when run over by a dog in an out-of-character slapstick moment - but he is foiled by the cries of the chimp. Max gives the maid an allergic reaction, plays with the food and generally disrupts the determinedly urbane guests.
We see Peter as a kind of hypocrite, as he is already carrying out an affair of his own, but the jealousy he has been holding back is brought to the boil when his curiosity becomes overwhelming. Is Margaret really having sex with the chimp? That's what he's set on finding out, as he has a hard time believing it; he talks to a zoologist and even goes to the extent of hiring a prostitute to see if Max will have sex with her, just to demonstrate to himself that it's possible, but Max isn't interested - he's a one woman chimpanzee. This situation comes to a head when he demands that Max be removed from the house whereupon Margaret and their son lock themselves in the cage with the ape, and Peter threatens to shoot the animal in his frustration.
Resembling a fable, Max Mon Amour is unconvincing as a critique of social mores, while still being an odd enough love story to be entertaining. As Margaret, Rampling adopts another of her risk-taking roles, but is so inscrutable that we are not much the wiser about her motives at the the end than we are at the start. The supporting cast act as if in an unorthodox farce, but Higgins' performance is a little uncertain when it's clear that his character is difficult to pin down in light of the script's obscure moral: both intrigued and resentful, then finally accepting. Max has a disappointing lack of personality, a blank canvas to project the attitudes of the film makers onto, and more interested in eating than anything else; his pining for Margaret at the end comes out of nowhere. The film is light and accessible, but finally baffling in its addition of an animal rights message. Music by Michel Portal.