The promise of Juliette Binoche and Edgar Ramirez paired as a passionate, volatile couple made writer-director Marion Laine’s A Monkey on My Shoulder about as essential viewing as any new French film premiering in the Cannes Market. It would also surely be a reasonable example of a French film with major stars and considerable Cannes pedigree that nevertheless had very likely been seen and rejected by the festival.
In this case, the absence of a Binoche-Ramirez pairing in the official selection is all too clear: Laine’s drama, based on Mathias Énard’s novel, Remonter L’Orénoque (Traveling Up the Orinoco), ends up being a royal mess, an emotional tennis match with the two actors volleying and proceeding to rip down the net.
Ramirez’ Javier is his hospital’s top heart surgeon, while Binoche’s Mila is his immediate second. (The film’s French title translates, in an unfortunate pun, as “Open Heart.”) His skills on full display in the opening sequence, Javier is at the same time on the hospital’s blacklist due to his raging alcoholism. Lusty as bunnies when they get back home, via motorcycle, Javier and Mila tend to be people who throw their entire beings at whatever task is at hand, whether it’s sex, work, or habitually breaking into the local zoo to frolic with, yes, the monkeys.
There turns out to be a whole lot of business with those monkeys, all of it increasingly laughable. But what undoes this Monkey is the movie’s obsession with pitting the two actors against each other in an endless string of domestic squabbles in which Ramirez is allowed to literally tear down the scenery. (His doctor makes Hugh Laurie’s House look positively sane.) The actors, at least, surely had a ball.