Saturday, January 27, 2007

Movie Notes: "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977)

Luis Buñuel's last film is about the irrational conflict of romantic relationships and how they can veer from the passionate to the ridiculous. Buñuel stages a relationship between a wealthy older man and his maid in which neither of them can satisfy their desires without surrendering some sort of power to the other and so they remain locked in combat that becomes increasingly bizarre and futile.

At first blush, the film seems to tell the tale of Mathieu, a rich widower who is sexually frustrated by the tempestuous younger woman Conchita. The film begins with the man relating this story to the other passengers on the train from Madrid to Paris who have just witnessed him dumping a bucket of water on her head! We learn in flashbacks that Conchita is mercurial- so much so that she's played by two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, who don't exactly resemble each other. Poor Matheiu wants to make Conchita his own: more specifically, he wants to have sex with her. But his attempts are in vain and she taunts him mercilessly, at one point, even having sex with her young lover in front of him.

Now, the other way to see it is that he has all of the power socially, and economically, and even politically over her, and expects to fully possess her. His attempts to woo Conchita come across as trying to buy her love, or her sex, including at one point, his attempt to win her over by paying her mother's rent, and later by buying her a house. She is the considerably more vulnerable partner here and acutely aware of her status. So, at some point, her tempestuousness starts to seem like a woman trying to remain independent with the class and gender cards stacked against her.

To make the whole situation stranger, the backdrop of this sex farce is an environment in which terrorist crimes are so common as to elicit little notice. Buñuel claimed that this simply reflects the political background of the late 1970s, when the film was made. But I think that the absurd battle between the terrorist groups of the political left and right in the film are intended to show the same sort of struggle between freedom and mutual dependency as exists between Matheiu and Conchita. And you could say that the far left and the far right really are in a masochistic love relationship just like the main characters. Towards the end of the film, we are informed by the radio that the various terrorist cells are fighting to see who can destabilize society first!

Certainly desire can destabilize society. Matheiu is the socially dominant member of high society who is reduced to servitude by what a maid has beneath her dress. On the other hand, both of them are obsessed with their own freedom and completely unable to freely pursue their own desires. So, perhaps nothing can destabilize society, or perhaps we need society in order to protect us from our desires, or perhaps society is already absurd and surreal. It's really up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

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