The closest English equivalent of Bye Bye Monkey’s Italian title Ciao maschio would be something along the lines of “Goodbye to manliness”. Perhaps it is for the best that the English title is not a literal translation, however.
Nothing in the world Marco Ferreri creates in the film is literal; all events, characters, and dialogue are symbolic and have multiple and sometimes conflicting meanings. Bye Bye Monkey is a unique type of puzzle; one where the goal is not to fit the pieces together but to learn to accept that it does not have a solution.
Bye Bye Monkey rather appropriately begins at dawn. The audience awakens with Lafayette and together we stumble bleary-eyed into a new day. As we are given our first glimpse of New York City, we are also given an introduction into a central device in Bye Bye Monkey: the juxtaposition of the known and familiar against the foreign and the surreal.
Emerging from his basement apartment, Lafayette is greeted by the sight of a man in a full hazardous materials suit holding a machine gun. He is one of many similarly dressed men lining the early morning streets in an effort to combat the plague of rats in Bye Bye Monkey’s alternate New York.
French immigrant Lafayette makes his living through odd jobs that capitalize on his mastery of electronics. The first of these jobs is as a handyman at Mr. Flaxman’s Roman Empire Wax Museum. Flaxman despises Lafayette’s “uncivilized” demeanor, but has given work as a painter to his friend and fellow European immigrant Luigi. The much-older Luigi laments to Lafayette about his inability to find love in America, blaming it on the younger generation’s lack of respect for men of his age.
The three-part relationship between Lafayette, Luigi, and Flaxman is one of the most repeated metaphors in the film. The trio represents youthful masculinity, fading masculinity, and “civilization”, respectively. That Flaxman rejects both Lafayette and Luigi is a way of saying that there is no longer a place in society for males.
James Coco’s Flaxman acts as Bye Bye Monkey’s conscious, the nagging voice that reminds the characters that their hopes are unreal and will never come to fruition. Late in the film, Flaxman is forced to replace the faces of the Roman figures with those of more modern American politicians and celebrities. His acquiescence to this demand ties the fate of civilization to that of masculinity and Ferreri’s point that the two are doomed to die together is confirmed by the film’s ending.
Lafayette’s second job is as a lighting technician for a feminist theatre troupe. Though ardent in their dedication to women’s rights, they find themselves at a loss for ideas for new shows when they realize they haven’t experienced any of the hardships they claim beset women. They settle on rape as their topic and decide that it is necessary to experience the act before they can adequately speak about it. Feeling that either side of the experience will give them insight, they conspire to rape Lafayette and do so after knocking him unconscious.
In this section of the film, Ferreri is clearly offering a view that is anti-feminist at a minimum and perhaps even anti-woman. The troupe is one of the only examples of feminity in the film, and Ferreri depicts them as exploitative and violent towards men and unable to see the irony of their actions and words.
Bye Bye Monkey depicts feminity and female empowerment as a force detrimental to society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s central plot point of Lafayette adopting a baby monkey found near King Kong’s corpse. Luigi is the first to spot the creature, and laments that he is too old to care for it and gives it to Lafayette. The monkey symbolizes a compromise of one’s masculine attributes in favor of more feminine ones.
Flaxman warns Lafayette to abandon the monkey, stating that it will eventually lead to his downfall. All of Flaxman’s statements are prescient so it of course does, as it forces Lafayette to become female to a degree. Ferrari’s ultimate point in Bye Bye Monkey if, indeed, there is one, is that society needs clearly defined masculine and feminine roles to survive.
A rebellion against the image of the “sensitive male” is buried deep among Ferreri’s many symbols and eccentricities, but it is there. The initial decision of who will take care of the monkey is relevant to this point in that Luigi is saying that he is too old to change his ways, too old to begin to move towards a more feminine character.
The younger Lafayette is able to do so, however, and that he is intended to be viewed as feminine after adopting the monkey is reinforced in several ways. An early scene with Angelica shows her in bed with another woman. Her attraction to Lafayette does not come until after he has the monkey, therefore making her decision consistent with her implied lesbianism earlier.
In the final scenes of the film, Lafayette rejects Angelica after she tells him that she is pregnant. His reaction to the news is not one of sadness or anger but rather disbelief that he was actually responsible for the pregnancy. The scene is among the film’s most important, as it ties together the many strands of meaning spread throughout the narrative.
First, it takes place on the same beach where Lafayette originally found King Kong’s corpse. Only bits and pieces of the once-massive beast remain, metaphorically representative of the disappearance of Lafayette’s masculinity.
Second, his refusal to believe or accept responsibility for Angelica’s pregnancy implies that the emasculation of males will eventually destroy the family unit. Shortly after this scene, Lafayette (masculinity) and Flaxman (civilization) die together by their own hands in Ferreri’s bleak final warning against abandoning traditional gender roles.
The richness of Bye Bye Monkey’s symbolism is almost crippled by its purposeful indecipherability. Ferreri does all he can to obfuscate meaning to the point that one begins to get the impression that he is ashamed of the message he is delivering. So buried in the text are his gender critiques that many critics tend to overlook them and view the film as a story of love and relationships in a near-apocalyptic future.
Rest assured that gender politics is a huge facet of Bye Bye Monkey, and it is not the first film of his in which it is a central theme, and at least this critic has a hard time empathizing with Ferreri’s conservative and borderline misogynistic views.
A brief excerpt from the almost-sycophantic documentary Marco Ferreri: The Director who Came from the Future is the lone special feature on Koch Lorber’s DVD of Bye Bye Monkey, however the print of the film is well above par. Bye Bye Monkey is a “critic’s film”. For a film critic, there is a lot of material to work with but little to be entertained by or enjoy.
The average viewer will find the film even less worthy of their time. Bye Bye Monkey is a stereotypical “foreign film” in the negative sense of that term. It is masterfully directed, elegantly shot, and superbly acted. It is also high on pretense and purposefully unintelligible. One is left with a deep admiration for Ferreri’s abilities as a filmmaker, but absolutely no desire to experience those abilities ever again.