Monday, April 3, 2017

Luis Buñuel | Cet obscur objet du désir (Ese oscuro objeto del deseo) (That Obscure Object of Desire)

not that kind of woman
by Douglas Messerli

Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (writers, based on the novel by Pierre Louÿs La Femme et le Pantin), Luis Buñuel Cet obscur objet du désir (Ese oscuro objeto del deseo) (That Obscure Object of Desire) / 1977

Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, is also one of his most satirically charming, a least if you read it from a rather feminist perspective. Written from a novel by Pierre Louÿs, the work had already been brought to film in Frank Lloyd’s The Woman and the Puppet, in Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1928 movie, and in Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman in 1935, staring Marlene Dietrich (one might even argue that The Blue Angel of 1930
had been a restatement of these themes). Julien Duvivier reused it yet again for his The Female, starring Brigitte Bardot, in 1959. Yet, as one might suspect from this director, the earlier versions are quite different from Buñuel’s vision.

        The work begins a bit like Buñuel’s 1964 Diary of a Chambermaid, with a servant girl’s master, Fernando Rey as Mathieu, suddenly falling in love with her, and lecherously attempting to seduce her. But in this work, the maid not only resists the seduction, she immediately “walks,” leaving her new master’s employment, beginning a series of intentional and seemingly coincidental re-encounters, the story of which Rey tells during a train trip to a group of strangers who, nonetheless, all have knowledge of the storyteller. One is acquainted with his cousin, a woman has seen him often walking on her street, and a psychologist dwarf seems to know all Mathieu’s inner feelings and motivations.
        In this series of reencounters, Mathieu increasingly ups the ante by spending lavishly on the woman Conchita (played in this director’s version by two different actors, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina), eventually luring her into his bed, and finally even offering her a pension of her own. But through all of these events, Conchita—maintaining that she is “not that kind of girl”—keeps her “virginity,” leaving the elderly admirer pining for her body, “that obscure object” of his “desire.” 
      It is only after he rediscovers her in Seville dancing flamenco in a small cafe, where in a back room she also dances it for tourists completely naked, that he realizes her lies. Even then,  
after giving her the key to her own pension, she taunts him by having sex with her handsome young accompanist—after attempting to deny it once again by describing the boy as a homosexual who merely acted out the lovemaking. It is only on that occasion that Mathieu finally realizes how he has been deceived time and again, and it is that realization, after he beats her, which occasions his train trip to Paris and the telling of his story.

       After all of the harrying events he has described, however, and, at the end of the voyage Mathieu discovers Conchita has been able to get on the same train, he starts up yet a new friendship with her—although by this time it has become hard to imagine what the nature of that relationship might be. Certainly, if there is to finally be a marriage, it will be a bloody one, as we witness in a store window, near where the couple are strolling, a seamstress knitting a delicate headdress to which is attached a bloody veil.

       Throughout Buñuel’s movie, presumably political terrorists seem to be threatening the countries through which Mathieu travels, some of these coming quite close to Mathieu’s home and, in one case, resulting in the stealing of his own automobile. The director links Conchita to the terrorists when three of her fellow players, all male, rob Mathieu in a park in Lausanne. Although Conchita returns the money, noting that they simply were trying to get back money taken from them by their manager in order to get home, Mathieu lets her keep it, presumably never again asking for it to be returned. He, as Conchita and her mother both remark, is a kind and generous man; but he is also an easy prey, a wealthy gentleman who believes that through his own manners and class position that he can acquire nearly anything he desires.
      What Conchita shows him is that he can never truly “acquire” the heart of a woman, particularly a woman as complex and truly independent as she is. Even if there had been a marriage, it would only again light a fuse, as when he has previously beaten Conchita. In short, in Buñuel’s telling the political and the sexual are completely intertwined, a fact that a man like Mathieu could never possibly come to perceive. 
     A sudden explosion at film’s end, wherein the strolling couple is presumably killed, makes that link clear. The struggles between this old man and young woman can only end in an explosion of cultural and political differences, resulting in their own immolation.

Los Angeles, April 3, 2017

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