Bunuel’s Devices & Desires

Human beings are irrational; it’s a fact that emotion dictates the better half of our actions and our beliefs.  This irrationality allows us to behave in some of the most absurd manners with unequalled conviction.  The irrationality of humanity that I speak of is the primary subject of Luis Bunuel’s final film That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977).  Bunuel’s fascination with the absurdity of human nature is not a new theme in That Obscure Object Of Desire, but rather a career long meditation.  In Bunuel’s first feature, L’Age D’Or (1931), Bunuel first explores how these absurdities are applicable to the relationship between a man and a woman in one of the most memorable pieces of surrealism ever committed to film.  An error many make in assessing Bunuel’s filmography is to consider him exclusively a surrealist.  On close inspection, scenes in The Milky Way (1969), The Exterminating Angel (1962) or The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972) that pass for surrealist are merely ridiculous parodies employed as social commentary.  In this way, I believe Bunuel is stylistically more akin to the films of Jacques Tati than to the cinema of his mentor Jean Epstein.  Though thematically, Bunuel’s filmography is closely linked, stylistically his surrealist period was very brief.  This is essential to understanding That Obscure Object Of Desire.  In That Obscure Object Of Desire, Bunuel cast two actresses; Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, to play the female lead Conchita.  It would be easy to dismiss this device as surrealist, but in the context of the film matters are much more complicated than that.

That Obscure Object Of Desire opens with Mathieu (Bunuel regular Fernando Rey) boarding a train.  Mathieu shares his compartment with a mother and her son, a judge, and a psychologist who happens to be a dwarf.  These four individuals witness Mathieu pour a bucket of water onto Conchita’s head.  This event prompts Mathieu to give his fellow passengers a lengthy explanation of the events preceding the bucket incident.  The flashbacks that compose Mathieu’s explanation make up most of the film.  The flashbacks are linear, moving in an episodic fashion, occasionally cutting back to the train car.  The content of these flashbacks is primarily a game of cat and mouse between Mathieu and Conchita, as he tries to seduce her, she rejects him, she tempts him again and so on.

The manner in which this cat and mouse game is executed becomes progressively more and more savage.  Both Mathieu and Conchita thrive on the thrill of misleading one another, instilling and then crushing each other’s hope.  In one scene, Conchita (living in a house Mathieu purchased for her) has intercourse with a young man in sight of Mathieu who is barred by a steel gate.  Conchita’s action in this scene epitomizes the kind of “psychological warfare” the couple have become engaged in.  It had always been Mathieu’s primary desire to sexually posses Conchita, who in one swift move has prevented Mathieu from fulfilling the desire that he had been nurturing for most of the film.

There is little room for logic in the game they are playing, which seems to be motivated only by passing desires.  So many times does Conchita offer her virginity to Mathieu only to reject him, whilst his desires vary from his wish to posses her to then to be rid of her.  To heighten the absurdity of their affair (Conchita is less than half Mathieu’s age), Bunuel ties in a subplot about terrorist attacks all through Europe.  Constantly, characters speak of the violence and killings perpetrated by these terrorists, and occasionally, characters even witness the terrorist actions.

The parallel of desire and terrorism does more than compliment the primary narrative, but also grounds the themes of that narrative into a broader political context outside of just Mathieu and Conchita.  In this way, the absurdity of taking political action via violence is equitable to the means by which Mathieu and Conchita set about fulfilling their desires.  It then becomes clear that this irrational thought process that plagues the main characters of the film is shared unanimously with all of the players in Bunuel’s cinema.

Likewise, Bunuel intersperses scenes on the train throughout Mathieu’s flashbacks.  The train sequences, even at the start of the film, have Mathieu behaving with all the refined grace of a typically Bunuelian Bourgeoisie.  Mathieu’s attitude and airs are shared by his fellow passengers, comically contrasting with the depraved sort of manipulations Mathieu engages in during his relationship with Conchita during the flashbacks.  The effect of this commentary allows the audience to see just how two-faced Mathieu is, without compromising the subjectivity of his flashbacks.  In this way, Mathieu can be seen as being not less nor more deceptive than his female counterpart Conchita.

Though Mathieu and Conchita remain ignorant of the terrorist actions throughout the film, they are unable to escape them at the film’s conclusion.  As Mathieu finishes telling his story to his fellow passengers, Conchita appears and pours a pale of water over Mathieu.  In this moment, the couple is reconciled yet again.  It seems that they will forever be caught in their vicious circle of lust and desire when, while strolling from the train station down a street lined with little boutiques, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing them both.

In one explosion, Bunuel ties up all the loose ends of his film and brings it to its natural conclusion.  Yet, for years the decision to cast two actresses in one part has been unresolved to audiences and critics alike.  Bunuel has never been specific as to the ramifications of his decision upon the context of the film, instead explaining his casting issues regarding the replacement of Maria Schneider on the film.

If one considers the film as a whole, it becomes evident that the flashbacks are subjectively told from Mathieu’s perspective.  In that case, could not the use of two actresses, as Conchita be consistent with Mathieu’s inconsistent perception of her?  Repeatedly, she accuses Mathieu of never really knowing her, desiring her only to fulfill some private fantasy.  As the actresses come and go from playing Conchita, it seems natural that it’s a reflection of Mathieu’s perverted perspective.  Such tactics seem even more relevant when one considers how easily Bunuel adopts surrealist tactics to social commentary.

-Robert Curry

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1 Comment

Filed under Summer 2012

One response to “Bunuel’s Devices & Desires

  1. you sir, have hit the nail on the head. its about time people started viewing bunuel as not just a surrealist, but a valid commentator who has a more inherent understanding of how mainstream film narrative works than most would like to give him any credit for. i especially love ‘object of desire’ for its views of the irrationality of nature and sexuality. the war between sexes, in bunuel’s world, is akin to terrorism.
    i especially loved reading this because of a recent browsing through i did of ‘the andy warhol diaries’ where he complains of bunuels posthumous death at the release of ‘object of desire’ where warhol is exasperated and depressed at the idea of going a year without a new bunuel film. if i were alive, i’m sure i would also be depressed.

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