john cribbs

Christopher Lambert first appeared on the big screen swinging into audiences' hearts as Tarzan, lord of the apes. Since then he has enjoyed a successful 25-year career as an actor, producer and occasional thunder god.

Although he counts himself among the star's many fans, Cribbs has actually only seen a handful of Lambert's more popular movies (the Highlanders, basically) and therefore made the questionable decision to embark on the ambitious and possibly pointless task of seeing all the French-American's films from Greystoke on. That's over forty films, but John isn't sweating it. It's time for a new kind of magic. Nothing in the world has prepared you for this. John is building a fortress for the ultimate takeover... of your mind!

This is his own personal...


marco ferreri, 1986

Since this Lamtrack train got rolling again last week with Hail, Caesar!, I thought I'd keep up the momentum by skipping back a full 30 years for a special love-themed entry in honor of Valentine's Day.

Notice I say "love-themed" rather than just "love." Typically your straight-up date movie involves two consensual parties falling in and out of infatuation with one another, each suffering and sacrificing and experiencing the dizzying heights and crushing lows of a spiraling romance, culminating in a finale where they either remain together or go their separate ways. In a traditional cinematic love story, you've got yourself a man and a woman. We've already looked at Love Songs, in which wet-behind-the-ears Christopher Lambert hooked up with a mature Catherine Deneuve, who is not only a woman but since the onset of her career been very much in the running for the woman. In the third film of Lambert's 1980's "love trilogy," his sweetheart is none other than 22-year-old Diane Lane, who is also, reports confirm, a woman. Generally speaking, your average viewer expects a love affair in a film to be between at least two human beings - but that's not the case with 1986's I Love You. In this one, Christopher Lambert's romantic interest is a keychain.

You see, Michel has a problem: every gorgeous young lady on the outskirts of Paris wants to have sex with him. Ugh - you know what that's like. Whether Michel is simply fed up with relationships and purposely repels his pining paramours by acting like an obnoxious man-child or that he just happens to be an obnoxious man-child is left ambiguous; either way, he seems to lose interest in intimacy shortly after the initial conquest. Barbara, his steadiest gal,* wants to have a kid together but he runs her off.

When I visited Love Songs, I mentioned that Lambert is unlucky in love: his significant others typically end up beheaded by ninja assassins or raped by Kurgans. Here he seems to be creating his own bad luck, rejecting all potential life partners until, strolling along an empty park late at night whistling to himself, he hears a toneless yet throaty female voice say "I love you." Upon investigation, he discovers a palm-sized pendant in the shape of a woman's face: cerulean eyes, shapely cheeks, large voluptuous lips. It's a knickknack, a novelty bauble that responds to a high-pitched prompt with the same three words that have inspired centuries of songs from Sumerian monks to Stephin Merritt.

This would seem a most atypical scenario, until you realize you're watching a Marco Ferreri movie. The prolific Ferreri, who got his start co-writing the black comedy Mafioso and directing bawdy bedroom comedies in Spain, made a name for himself with the controversial satire Dillinger Is Dead, in which Michel Piccoli spends a night at home cooking himself a gourmet meal, making out with a snake-puppet, licking honey off Annie Girardot's back and shooting his wife with a gun he'd found and painted polka dots all over. His absurdist western Don't Touch the White Woman!, with Lambert's Love Songs co-star Catherine Deneuve, was followed by the orgiastic comedy La Grande Bouffe in which a group of wealthy food enthusiasts make a pact to gorge themselves to death at an expansive villa.

Ferreri's got a knack for odd relationship movies: he made one where a man marries a hairy lady only to turn her into a freak show attraction (The Ape Woman). In the late 70's he released Bye Bye Monkey, in which Gerard Depardieu finds a baby chimpanzee in a giant King Kong prop and decides to raise it like a son. He'd even made another film, the 1965 short Break-Up, about a man infatuated with the synthetic, in that case a child-like Marcello Mastroianni, who gets off on blowing up balloons until they burst. So it's safe to say that by 1986, Ferreri could make you understand the characters in these bizarre relationships - even when you literally don't understand the movie itself.

So I have to confess something. I wasn't going to mention it, but even the faint trace of journalistic integrity I possess demands that I come clean. I only had access to a Canadian dvd of I Love You, which is in French with no English subtitles. I don't speak French, and only recognize the most rudimentary of phrases. This is important to disclose because, undoubtedly, there are several important pieces of dialogue between characters that I completely missed. So while I watched the film from start to finish, it's quite possible that I misinterpreted anything from tiny subtle indications to vastly important plot developments. If I'm ever able to view a properly translated version of I Love You, I will absolutely revise this article; until then, I completely understand if this admission disqualifies me from reviewing the film and the reader chooses signs off here.

That said, I'm pretty sure I picked up most of the story. The title is in English. The oft-repeated use of the title is in English. The opening song is in English. Honestly, there are only a few things that I found confusing. Like, why is there a little Asian kid sitting on the stairs in Michel's loft feeding a baby pig milk from a bottle? This happens twice, and Michel seems totally down with it, but it doesn't seem like the kid - or the pig - lives there, so maybe he just likes to bring the pig over and hang out? Is the presence of the pig an obscure reference to Razorback, the film Russell Mulcahy made right before Highlander (which came out the same year as I Love You?)

At any rate, the first vocals heard in the film are Michel and his pal Yves, played by French singer-actor Eddy Mitchell, snorting at each other in imitation of the kid's pet, which you don't need subtitles for. But it would help to know why Michel incorporates this oinking into his boinking, as he does later when he sneaks into the bedroom behind a giant African-style mask, snorting out a Wilbur-style mating call as his lady friend watches, clearly unimpressed.

This bizarre foreplay isn't just some drunken whim: as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Michel has some odd tics. He keeps a naked baby doll on his shelf; later on, he appears to purchase another naked baby doll, from some bikers on the street at night(?) and gifts it to his girlfriend, who hits him over the head with it. He lives in a loft with a pear tree just outside the window, lounges around in a director's chair with "Steven Spielberg" stenciled on the back,** rides a motorcycle and wears a Japanese kimono over a t-shirt with a picture of food on it that says "BREAKFAST."***

Dear god, is this cat a hipster? This is seemingly confirmed when he and Yves go to some warehouse space where a crappy band is performing and cheesy art installation videos are set up all over. There's a pair of blonde twins just kind of wandering around from one installation to the next like a Diane Arbus photograph come to life. Without asking permission, a hopped-up freak "captures" Michel's face by pressing it into a t-shirt covered in red paint. Michel is pissed, but after seeing his crimson visage in the mirror he decides he kind of likes it. Later that night, he rudely scares off a couple necking in a parked car in the middle of nowhere by popping up at the window and startling them with his blood-red face. I was going to point out how this look pre-dated the war paint in Braveheart, but that's just me confusing Braveheart with Highlander again; turns out I'm just racist towards kilts.

                Later, Michel sees this mural of himself in an alley - I'm not sure if the freak who pressed his face into the
                t-shirt painted it or if Michel is hallucinating and it's not really there. Don't know if subtitles would have
                cleared this up. In any case, it's pretty cool and reminds me of the close-up of Keanu Reeves inside the
                scramble suit from A Scanner Darkly.

But speaking of Mel Gibson's 1995 Best Picture Academy Award Winner, we've also got the princess' handmaiden from Braveheart (who later married the guy from Boomtown Rats) playing a hooker enjoying a banana at the mall. (Of course, the princess was played by Sophie Marceau, with whom Lambert would become involved with 20 years later.) Michel works at the mall in a travel kiosk, where his job seems to be to sexually harrass his female co-worker and flirt with all the pretty customers, including a smitten airhead with big earrings named Hélène (Agnès Soral). She's the first to be treated to his new acquisition: the flattering keychain, which he discovered just after scaring off the couple in the car. He manages to scare off Hélène as well, by fawning over this obscure object of desire and its emphatic assurance of "I love you" throughout their date at a dance club. Later, he effortlessly seduces an amorous opera singer away from Yves but she quickly becomes disgusted by the attention he gives the pendant, berating him: "That's every man's dream, isn't it? You just have to whistle. 'I love you.' You'd like that. A loving girl, always there...your ideal woman, eh? A gadget that swoons at will. You'd like that!"

Indeed, Michel is soon fully obsessed with this trinket that provides all the affirmation he wants, whenever he wants it. While it's strange that he'd form a bond with such a monosyllabic individual - it's sort of like falling in love with "Uh-Huh" from The Little Rascals - he takes pride in being the only one whose whistle provokes the coveted reiteration (come to think of it, I wonder if Ferreri's film holds the record for most times the title of the movie is stated out loud?) There's no doubt Michel receives fulfillment from the chintzy automaton, this undemanding engine of assurance that fits right inside his pocket and offers unswerving devotion in appreciation of a few whistles, and its effect on women makes the situation even more delightfully absurd - the songbird gets so jealous of it that she up and slaps him in the face.

There's even something touching in Michel's anthropomorphizing of his treasured curio: he buys it jewelry (gift-wrapped!) and places its face over that of a swimsuit model so he can lie in bed and gaze at it lovingly. Pretty soon he's cavorting naked around it (yes ladies, this is the debut of the actor's Lam-bare behind), this behavior leading to the film's most outlandish and most 80's sequence where Michel tapes the trinket to the TV and joyfully masturbates to the sound of it chirping "I love you" over and over again. This whistle-while-you-whack sequence cuts between the increasingly aroused Michel and the stationary trinket, digitized waves crashing on the screen behind its impassive expression until both participants are spent, the whistling winding down just as the automated voice peters out and the face becomes a dark silhouette against the grain glowing off the television set. It's a nice transition from the silly tone of the first half of the movie to the creepier territory Ferreri moves it into from there.

Events take a turn when Pierre, a squirrely little Polanski-John Belushi hybrid, shows up at the kiosk with the same keychain (but different color eyes). Lambert is visually upset to meet this deviant, who clearly embellishes the whistle-response etiquette with fetishistic glee. It's not so much the mirror being held up - I think Michel was honestly under the impression that he had a unique thing going with his gadget, that his discovery of it was more than serendipitous and something like destiny. Finding out he's just a subgroup of pervos makes him nervous, and he aggressively attempts to un-man Pierre by repeatedly whistling at the guy's keychain, causing a scene. Then at home, he gets really riled up when his own little lady responds to Yves whistling at it: "Ça va! Ça va!"

Distracted by his bauble's betrayal, Michel is involved in an off-screen motorcycle accident and injures his mouth, after which he finds he can't whistle! He can't get it out! He enlists Subway co-star Jean Reno, playing a dentist in short-sleeves, to fix his teeth but the damage appears irreparable and an impotent Michel is forced to operate a wind-up glass music box in order to make his trinket "speak," sobbing profusely at every turn of the crank. He tries to compromise, incorporating his oral stimulation of the keychain into a standard hook-up with a lady in lingerie who shows up at his door, but his desperate whistles go unanswered.

He takes to moping about town, he can't focus on his job. He ends up sharing a straw with the mall hooker (a good idea?) and joining her for a jump in a jungle-based bouncy castle. She's in a zebra-print outfit so it's pretty funny (it also seems like a cheeky reference to Tarzan), even though all Michel can do is sulk in the corner of the fortress, as unwilling to bring it to life by leaping about its inflated interior as he's unable to bring his plastic companion to life by pursing his lips and letting out air. Eventually he becomes completely despondent, isolating himself under the pink sheets of his bed with some bananas (lotta bananas in this movie; Ferreri also used the Jane Chiquita song "Me Gusta La Banana" in his previous film, The Future is a Woman - guess this was just a banana-heavy phase of his career).

Something happens to Yves (sorry, language barrier - he's injured somehow?) and the two start hanging out again. One night they're flipping channels and come upon the climax of Dillinger Is Dead, Michael Piccoli shooting Anita Pallenberg three times through some pillows while she's asleep with a revolver he's decorated with red with white polka dots. Inspired, Michel gets himself a hammer and "murders" his beloved piece of plastic, with Yves' help. Then they sit down to watch the rest of the movie, which has Piccoli setting off on a yacht to Tahiti. Apparently this prompts Michel to go to the beach with a handful of bananas that he scarfs down one-by-one, gluttony being a favorite theme of Ferreri's. Looking through a spyglass, he spots the figurehead of a woman that looks like the face on the keychain on a passing boat. With a battle cry that would do MacLeod proud, he drives his bike into the water and swims in its direction. He tries to whistle but can't, and the ship sails off.

I tried to think of an example where a director had a character watching one of his own movies. All I could come up with was Mark L. Lester having Stegman watch Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw in Class of 1984, and Mel Brooks' entire filmography showing up in the video library of Spaceball One (although the characters end up watching their own movie). This has got to be the first time a character viewed another film by the same director and was inspired to end the movie the exact same way as the earlier one. Ferreri loves ending things on the beach: besides Piccoli by the seaside in Dillinger, Bye Bye Monkey's last scene has former porn star Abigail Clayton playing on the shore with Depardieu's son. And in the finale of The Story of Piera, Isabelle Huppert takes her mentally-ill mother Hanna Schygulla to a deserted beach where they strip and embrace each other. Of course, Connor MacLeod first experiences the Quickening on the beach, so Lambert's no stranger to the shores himself.

It's tricky to make a one-sided relationship with a piece of plastic appeal to someone whose closest equivalent was a brief obsession with Nintendo in the late 80's (i.e. me, John Cribbs), but Lambert makes it work. He does a good job in I Love You, switching from goofy to desperate with considerable easy. Not understanding all the dialogue made me appreciate his physical performance, the way I would an actor in a silent film. Not that he's Buster Keaton or anything, although as always he's got charm to spare and can just as easily turn on the tragic. His acting is more impressive than that of, say, Joaquin Phoenix in Her or Domhnall Gleeson in Ex-Machina, playing characters who also fall in love with talking pieces of plastic but had, respectively, the benefit of the vocal performance of Scarlett Johansson and slinky robotness of Alicia Vikander to play against. Lambert's largely on his own selling this sort-of half-baked satire of narcissism and male insecurity, which he does with utmost humanity.

On a side note: I wasn't sure if he did his own singing in Love Songs, and I'm not sure if he does his own whistling here, but if so it's some good work.

I Love You was the first (and I'm guessing only) Christopher Lambert film to be entered into main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where by all reports it was met with general disdain and afterwards died a quiet death. The 1986 festival had some heavy hitters,**** including Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, Jarmusch's Down by Law, Scorsese's After Hours, Roland Joffé's The Mission (which won the Palme d'Or) and Nagisa Oshima's Max mon amour, another movie about a bizarre love affair, between Charlotte Rampling and a monkey. Ferreri's film is no classic, but was it really as bad as Oshima's weird tale of primate passion (or, for that matter, Polanski's out-of-competition Pirates, which opened the festival?) Certainly its star didn't have to worry about its reception too much, as international fame was just on the horizon.

~ FEBRUARY 12, 2016 ~

NEXT WEEK: The companion piece to this review of I Love You: the pure, uncut, Sam Neilliest 280-minute version of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World.

* Barbara is played by Anémone, whose real name is Anne-Aymone Bourguignon. Her first film role was the title character in Philippe Garrel's Anémone, and she's used the stage name ever since. Weird, right? Like if Lambert insisted on being billed as "Tarzan" for the rest of his career.
** This reminds me of the scene in Mortal Kombat where the director of Johnny Cage's movie resembles Spielberg; turns out, Spielberg (a big gaming nerd) was meant to cameo in this scene but had to back out due to a scheduling conflict...or the realization that he was about to lend his renowned likeness to a friggin' Mortal Kombat movie. (Of course later he plastered his name across the Transformers franchise, so who knows?)
*** He also wears a leotard in two different scenes. Jeez C.L., I know you got your start in dance, but c'mon man.
**** Jane Campion's short films also debuted at that year's festival.