Saturday, January 30, 2021

Nagisa Ōshima - Max, My Love

Not one, but three texts by Daney on Nagisa Ōshima's Max, My Love.

I recently came across an unpublished text written by Daney and translated in English for the press kit of the film. I found a reference to it 16 years ago but somehow came across it recently, thanks to the Cinefile archives of Berkeley University. 

Since Daney wrote two other texts about this film (both for Libération, a report about the filming in Paris, and a film review), here are the three of them in one go, translated. Their content is very similar.

Ōshima Nagisa by Serge Daney 

Whatever he does, Ōshima is a rather peculiar Japanese man. Now, whatever you might think, Japanese culture does not encourage peculiarities. It still feels too peculiar as a whole to tolerate being so in detail. One can only escape Japanese conformity by eccentricity. In Japan, it is perfectly possible to be officially eccentric, to irritate and be envied. The eccentric is envied because of his candid way of talking ; he irritates because his reputation sometimes goes beyond the waters of the archipelago. That's where the ambiguity begins. How can one stay oneself between two deforming mirrors? Real gymnastics, almost an art: the art of Ōshima Nagisa. 

Ten years ago, the trendy world audiences discovered In the Realm of the Senses. In Western countries people were quick and ready to admit that the Japanese knew something about the distinction between eroticism and pornography, Bataille was quoted and people were moved by this film. In Japan, things were taking a more trivial turn. The censor imposed little puritan and pink clouds over the taboo parts of the body (body hair, not the organs) and the illustrated book of the script was banned. This was followed by a trial which Ōshima, who was delighted, used as a rostrum to speak in favour of freedom of expression against hypocrisy. Already ten years ago. In the Realm of the Senses was Ōshima's twenty-first feature film. So, not only is he not a beginner, but context of the Japanese society and film industry of the sixties when he started is now far away. In the Realm of the Senses is produced by Anatole Dauman, a Frenchman; the age of international co-productions and the cinephilic jet set is upon us. For the people who discovered him in those days, Ōshima was the impeccably dressed character going from festival to festival, who was not very talkative, polite and brutal, vaguely effeminate and quite unfathomable. For the Japanese public he is a media star who answers anguished Japanese housewives' questions on the television. He is also the man who films and models in Kansai Yamamoto's fashion shows (who dresses him). This reconversion of an old leftist dissenter into a society figure irritates and creates envy. Has he betrayed the romantic anarchism of his earlier days? Many of his old friends think so, but their opinion is of little importance now. 

Ōshima has forgotten nothing, but he is lucid. In a bourgeois, nouveau riche country, cinema is no longer the mirror, even the cracked one, where the image of Japanese society is composed. The very desire of expression through cinema needs a favourable balance of power. Even Kurosawa experienced this. Ōshima's strength is his name and his brand image born along with In the Realm of the Senses

Only cinema specialists know bits and pieces about his earlier works, which are his most beautiful (The Little Boy for example) and know that in the early sixties there was a shock in Japanese cinema, a rebellious movement, a new Wave. The specialists even think that the young Ōshima had a feverish and headlong way of shooting one film after another, like Fassbinder. He divorced the old consensual cinema (led by Ozu), the American model and imperialism, narrow-minded feudal morals and the inertia of the great film studios. Sometimes a film from that period comes back, like the Cruel Story of Youth today.  We are struck dumb. But Ōshima lives with his time. He shoots less, with more difficulty and maybe with less inspiration. But he gives up nothing of the essential. And the essential is that today's Japanese at long last accept to "belong to mankind," that they do not drift towards an electronics Clochemerle or a military organisation of the peace, and that they stop despising all that is "cosmopolitan". This is why Furyo is an important film. For the first time, a Japanese movie maker decided to narrate an episode of the last World War, putting himself in yesterday's enemy's shoes as well, the Whites. 

This is why Max, My Love will surely be an important film. For the first time a Japanese movie maker tells a story which has absolutely nothing to do with Japan. It doesn't sound like much, but it's really quite something. This is why every morning in the Billancourt Studios in Paris, we have bumped into a very relaxed Ōshima, who is delighted with his alliance with Serge Silberman, the French producer (the man who made Ran possible). Ōshima, a normal movie maker, talking normally about the complex love between a diplomat's wife and a sentimental chimpanzee, quietly in search of new barriers to be the first to cross. He was zealous enough to come and live alone in Paris, cut off from his mother tongue, reduced to a rather approximate spoken English, and a rugged form of French. He has transformed the hazards of production into a pioneering experience: he is quite simply one of the first real travellers in the history of Japan. 

Believed to have been written exclusively for the press kit of Max, My Love, Greenwich Film Production S.A., 1986. I've amended the translation slightly.

Ōshimax, My Love!

Suite of the Franco-Japanese entente cordiale. Serge Silberman produces Nagisa Ōshima. Scandalously serene, the auteur of In the Realm of the Senses gave his film the title Max, My Love. The story of a ménage à trois. But who’s Max? And where is Ōshima at?

Consider a couple, in bourgeois circles. The man is a cultural attaché at the British Embassy, he is therefore English (Anthony Higgins). The woman (Charlotte Rampling, incredibly elegant) is French. Their apartment, invented by Pierre Guffroy, luxurious and outmoded, is similar to the decors in Buñuel’s last films, which is normal since Guffroy was production designer on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Along with Jean-Claude Carrière, he is one of these talents that Serge Silberman does not lose sight of or allow to remain idle. On the large Billancourt set, Guffroy has designed a succession of apartments (brass columns, linoleum-made marble) based on the movements of the characters as they were specified with precision by Ōshima and Carrière in the script. And since the Billancourt studios, to their dismay, can only rent raw space (“even the guardrails had to be built”), even the smallest accessory had to be carefully chosen. It took three weeks to build the décor where the young diplomatic couple lives and where Max – that’s the story of the film – will soon move in, in the last room, a bit dirty, like a den. 

Margaret, the wife of the cultural attaché, has met Max and (the detective in charge is sure of it) has made Max her lover. But we would be wrong to think that the cultural attaché was cheated on. It’s complex because the other man is other without being a man: Max is a chimpanzee. Apart from the maid (Victoria Abril) who develops an allergic reaction when in contact with the beast, all of them (including the child of the couple, a young blond boy called Nelson) welcome Max and accept the love relationship (sexual? not so sure) that it has with his master-partner. How far will they go? Will this romantic dispositif survive in a society so stiff and policed? What about Max’s jealousy? Will Peter, that’s the name of the attaché, truly accept this blow to monogamous values?

The starting point comes from Jean-Claude Carrière and it is rather Buñuelian. Silberman produced Buñuel’s last films before managing the mammoth production of Kurosawa’s Ran. He meets the other internationally renowned Japanese filmmaker (Ōshima) in 1982 and they decided to make a film together as soon as possible after Ran. Ōshima had no difficulties adopting Carrière’s idea. He sees it as a commentary, ten years later, on In the Realm of the Senses where already two characters (a couple) were quietly casting themselves away from social rules to pursue, outside the rules, an experiment where eroticism would attempt to seal the dead ends of human communication. At the time, Ōshima had already worked with a French producer, the great Anatole Dauman. Strange how across a decade and a continent, in this situation created by the exiles and the co-productions that define auteur cinema today (at least its international side), all the threads come into knots, all the batons are passed, all the inheritances are received with the most unflappable logic. 

Max, My Love will only cost 4 million dollars (v. 17 million for Ran). Filming started on September 23rd and will last twelve weeks. Paris, its suburbs and its studios (Billancourt) will serve as the background for this discreet shoot where even the master has become Parisian. Not a Japanese word on the set, only some “Action!” shouted in English like some Banzai charge, Raoul Coutard’s grumblings, the repertoire of French chanson hummed by the key grip and Max’s squeaks. Thousand anecdotes could be told (like on any shoot) but the essential seems rather to be the impression given by Ōshima that he “knows where he is going.” The film is likely to be less mannered than Furyo, simpler and fainter, in this forthright and falsely subdued style of Chabrol’s or B series bourgeois extravagances. The only remaining questions are whether the constant melange of the two languages in the dialogue – French and English – will give the international credibility that Silberman and Ōshima wish for their product? And will Max be “probable”?

Unable to reveal all about Max, it is possible to lift a corner of this hairy veil. Here is the authorised version: “Rick Baker himself, the make-up artist behind Greystoke, the specialist of fake reproductions of Tarzan’s primate friends, came to help with the project. In the background, there are six Brits under the direction of the American looking after latex moulds, the mechanic behind the precision of simian expressions, contact lenses and hair implants. The complete costume with the fur, the underwear giving the right anatomic shapes, the legs, the arms and the head, took six months to build. And since everything gets worn out, we had to plan for spare parts. And let’s not mention the hair that need to be implanted one by one and require the patience of a monk. Then, because we need every movement to have the same truth as the outside appearance, we need a professional to learn to live inside the envelope. That’s Alisa Berk, a performance artist in her thirties, who has spent a lot of time in zoos, been pally with other mammals for several months, assimilated the body language of the monkeys to a point where she is undistinguishable from a beast.”

Another question that will doubt interest those that have known Ōshima since the beginning of the sixties and know how important he was for contemporary cinema (let’s recall some of the titles: Night and Fog in Japan, 1960, Death by Hanging, 1968, the admirable Boy, 1969, The Ceremony, 1971, In the Realm of the Senses, 1976): has the author of these violent and anti-conformist films kept his energy intact? Where is he at?

“I must suffer from cyclothymia,” he wrote in 1974. “One day, the flow of my emotions keeps pouring over. They envelop me like dense air, and my body is one with the world. The day after, air rarefies around me, and my chest is heavy as if made of lead. My body is insensitive to the outside, as if the world around me had lost its gravity and floated in blueish sadness. I lose all the clues that could lead me to human dignity. The vitality that is specific to people in jail, of the criminals about to commit another crime, of those that need to oppose themselves frontally to modern Japan in order to live, doesn’t exist in me.” (Écrits, Cahiers du cinéma - Gallimard).

Does the man who wrote these lines nearly twelve years ago still suffer from cyclothymia? If yes, then we found him on a good day. It’s the usually impeccable Ōshima (always dressed by Yamamoto Kansai) who welcomes us after a day of shooting, slightly dishevelled and rather merry, delighted with his alliance with Silberman that allows him for once to concentrate on his mise en scène. We had met Ōshima several times in Paris, Cannes and Tokyo and had found him tense, almost uncomfortable, caught between the two images of a Japanese media celebrity and a controversial auteur of global cinema. But in Billancourt that day, he was – finally – a filmmaker like any other, happy to get to work. 

Co-signed by Serge Daney and Bertrand Raison. Published in Libération on 18 December 1985. 

Ōshima apes humans

A serene anthropologist, Oshima invents a ménage à trois where the other is a monkey. Max, My Love isn’t his best film, but it is so nondescript that it still disturbs. 

Nagisa Ōshima’s new film is strange. It will disappoint those that expected it to be scandalous and shocking, but won’t comfort those that don’t like scandals or shocks.  It shines with a faint radiance, like something distant or faded. All the same, it is difficult to shake it off. As if, in 1986, Max, My Love was the stubborn ghost of a (once) modern cinema, a cinema once heralded by Ōshima as one of its heroes (let’s never forget that he made Cruel Story of Youth and In the Realm of the Senses).

The cage is here, the beast is there

So, Max is the love-object. The chimpanzee was bored stiff in a zoo when an elegant woman – the wife of an attaché at the British Embassy in Paris – buys it for a handful of peanuts and grants it, each day in a hotel, a number of mysterious hours. That, we don’t see but we learn at the same time as the (young and impeccable) husband who, believing he was being cheated upon, had his wife followed by a detective. If it wasn’t a film by Ōshima, the situation would be worthy of some Ionesco-inspired vaudeville. For what does happen in Ōshima’s films? Always the same thing. A character, at some point, accepts to follow another to the end of his pleasure (the pleasure of another, of course). This character does this because of conviction, holiness, or voyeurism, in a word: for love. And to do this, one must begin by renouncing to the (sexual or social) roles that were his preserve. For example, the pleasure of a man ends where the pleasure of the woman begins, and he follows her knowing that he will stall along the way. That’s the last, very beautiful, part of In the Realm of the Senses

“Let’s live with Max!”, the young attaché proposes to his wife, who accepts. And here is the couple, very select and very bilingual (and with a young child for good measure), embarking without safety net on a human-monkey conviviality experiment. Max (very sentimental) plays the role of the “Other” perfectly, meaning with jealousy. It only likes the attaché’s wife and only it, seemingly, can satisfy her. Their friends laugh uncomfortably, the neighbours’ dogs bark, the maid develops a skin rash, Max seeks freedom and the husband wants to murder Max. But on the whole, the cage is here, the beast is here, they have breakfast together, it begins to work. 

Why does the film both disturb and disappoint for not disturbing more? Hard to say. The first reasons owe to the production of the film. Since Furyo, Ōshima has suffered from the lethargic state of Japanese cinema. His encounter with Silberman who was producing Ran in Tokyo allowed him to return to filmmaking. He instantly liked the idea of Max, My Love proposed by Jean-Claude Carrière (which is only logical since the idea is very Ōshima-esque). For the first time, a Japanese filmmaker shoots, far away from his native archipelago, a film where nothing Japanese is at stake (which, when it comes to Japan, is quite something). Ōshima, who gets by in English but struggles with French, must direct the film in these two languages. This logically creates a slight hesitation in the dialogues. As if the filmmaker had organised his film from a faraway planet or if he had directed it with a walkie talkie, with the exaggerated precision of a long-distance communication device. To overcome this predictable disadvantage inherent to the co-production, Carrière and Silberman made a reasonable choice: to write and produce Max, My Love like one of Buñuel’s last films. With the same bourgeois interiors, the same opacity of a dream that is too sharp, the same faded exteriors and the same strange interiors. This wasn’t a bad move since Ōshima has many things in common with Buñuel (logical, deadpan, anarchist) but we couldn’t quite adhere to it completely. This posthumous Buñuel offered by Ōshima to Silberman lacks humour. 

Lean to live with the limit

Then there are the fundamental reasons. Ōshima is a realist (he makes necessary changes for the needs of the coproduction) but he is also stubborn. He cares for his fundamental project in practical anthropology. He likes situations where humans must confront their humanity to what appears inhuman to them: women, non-Japanese, non-humans. Ōshima seems to say that, even though we are wishing it, the humanisation of the world will (fortunately) never been complete. And to wish it, we must go through a limit between the outside and the inside of a group, and to learn to live with this limit. Ōshima adds a new limit to the one separating men and women, one that separates them from the beasts. But what separates is also links. 

In 1986, Ōshima is less interested in the extremes of sexual desire than to the infinity of love. It’s his way to move with the times and to age. This is why, in final analysis, Max, My Love wouldn’t work at all without Charlotte Rampling. Beautiful and more than troubling, she manages – with great elegance – not to answer the question that, in the film and in the audience, is on everyone’s lips (“So, how is it, with the monkey?”), and to simply offer her serious face to the camera. The audience must then overcome its jealousy and also accept that while all this concerns it, it is also none of its business. 

First published in Libération on 14 May 1986. Reprinted in La maison cinema et le monde, vol. 3, P.O.L., 2012.

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