A Monkey On My Shoulder: alcohol, love, and destruction
by Fabien Lemercier
09/08/2012 - Set to be released in French cinemas on August 8 by MK2, A Monkey On My Shoulder (A cœur ouvert), Marion Lainé’s second feature film after A Simple Heart [trailer], is to immerse its audience into the three highly emotional universes of love, heart surgery, and alcoholism. This explosive mixture, that is conducive to all sorts of human blunders, makes for a heart-rending film starring great performances by Juliette Binoche and Edgar Ramírez (who dazzled us in Olivier Assayas’ Carlos [trailer]).
The director and Anne Le Nyis adapted Matthias Enard’s novel Remonter l’Orénoque (lit. “To travel up the Orinoco”) for the film’s screenplay, and A Monkey On My Shoulder starts off in an operating room with Mila (Binoche) and Javier (Ramirez) exchanging meaningful looks above their surgical masks. The whole team was waiting for him, while he was secretly downing alcohol in the next room just before performing open heart surgery. The scene is set. There is obviously a serious problem here. Later, after a warning from his boss ("I don’t like rumours, I told you, Javier"), he is fired from the operation room. Suddenly his future is reduced to consultations and teaching, with no prospects of ever operating again elsewhere because of his reputation (and a file against him).
Mila, who is also a surgeon, loves Javier passionately. Like him, she enjoys a good drink (but is not addicted) and moments of madness (illegal visits to parks and the zoo at night), and shares his love of fast motorbikes and nonchalant humour. She will try everything to prevent him from hitting the bottom, but won’t manage to maintain appearances at the hospital for very long ("Open your eyes, your husband is an alcoholic and it always ends badly!"). When she becomes pregnant, she decides to keep the child (although, to maintain their freedom, she had never wanted one before) to give them a goal as a couple, then considers resigning to go to live in South America. But nothing can stop their relationship from eroding into open conflict, as the fragile, sickened Javier hits rock bottom dragging Mila down with him.
Alcoholism has often been addressed on the big screen (Barfly, The Woman of My life or One for the Road, to cite just some films), but here the theme serves as a catalyst for Marion Lainé to address the disintegration of a passionate love story. The director thus remains very evasive as to the reasons behind Javier’s addiction, and chooses to concentrate of the female character’s reactions instead.
Binoche and Ramirez manage to master several unavoidably extreme, emotionally-charged sequences, and dynamic editing using ellipses and jump cuts successfully conveys a constant power struggle between hope and suffering. Credible scenes in the operating room and medical references (a special mention goes to Hippolyte Girardot) make for an interesting backdrop to this tale of feelings tested by chaos, an unforgiving downward spiral with a debatable semi-realistic, semi-dreamlike ending.