Sunday, July 24, 2011

Two-Faced Lovers

I have to admit that I don't really understand all of Luis Buñuel's last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), and that may be the point. It's a deep mystery. I think this is appropriate, actually, because desire and love and obssession--which are things I can say with some assurance by the movie itself that the movie is about--are all the kinds of deeply mysterious noumena we all keep locked up inside of us that can never be explained to others. Perhaps the film's best joke is that its main narrative consists of a man trying to explain it to others. I'd like to say that he's an unreliable narrator, that his essential untrustworthiness is why the movie plays the epistemological games that it plays, but that supposition isn't supported by the film.

The film opens with a middle aged man buying a train ticket. This is Matthieu, a bourgeois gentleman of a certain age. Matthieu is played by Buñuel's occasional alter-ego, Fernando Rey. Matthieu is fleeing Seville, but before he goes, he returns to his quarters and tells his serving man to burn everything: bloodstained pillow, high heel shoes, a pair of panties. Anyone with a long acquaintance with Buñuel will recognize these as signifiers of the director's own cinematic and sexual fetishes. As he gets on the train, he is pursued by an elegant young woman. Matthieu pours a bucket of water on her and spends the rest of his journey (and the film) relating why he did this to his traveling companions: A mother and her daughter, another middle-aged businessman, and a psychiatrist who happens to be a dwarf. This last bit is a signifier, but I'll get come back to that. Mattieu relates the tale of how he met the beautiful Conchita when she was working as a maid and how he pursued her only to be rebuffed. He keeps pursuing her, and he keeps getting rebuffed. Weirdly, Conchita seems to relish being pursued, and her lures grow ever more sexual and ever more frustrating to Mattieu. She comes to bed in one sequence, for instance, in a chastity girdle. In another, she leaves Mattieu in the showroom where she dances for a "rest" break only to be found by Mattieu giving private nude dances to tourists. By the end of the film, Mattieu must indeed have the biggest case of blue balls in history. He's crushed when Conchita contrives to stage a coupling with her younger lover in full view of Mattieu, who is locked out of the scene by an iron grate. And yet, he continues to return.

This film is famous for casting two actresses as Conchita--Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina--and dubbing her voice with a third actress. Another director might assign specific personality traits or roles to play in the mistaken idea that women are complicated to the point of fractured identity, but Buñuel doesn't do that. Each actress gets an equal weight of scenes in equal moods. There's a hint in the way she's portrayed that she's not quite real, a figment of Mattieu's imagination (or at the very least a figment of his sexual obsession), perhaps a side effect of being an unreliable narrator, but when the film's chronology catches up to the narration, and Conchita and Mattieu meet again, the role of Conchita continues to switch off between actresses. And then there's the psychiatrist. By casting a dwarf in the role, Buñuel puts the film at a small remove from mundanity. Is this part of the movie real? Maybe. Maybe not.

The other key thematic element of the film is a backdrop of terrorism. The use Buñuel makes of the casual violence that erupts throughout the film reminds me a bit of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's similar usage: The world is full of violence, so what's one more attrocity, eh? What's one pathetic man's pursuit of a cruel ideal of love against such a backdrop. If you want, you can interpret this as symbolic of a war of the sexes between Mattieu and Conchita, and given the way the movie ultimately consummates their relationship, you can make an argument.

The style of late-period Buñuel is a poker face. He doesn't try to force his hand by emphasizing things with soundtrack cues or exotic camera angles or flashy editing. He trains his camera on things and lets them unfold all on their own. If there's any kind of intensifying effect to what's on screen in That Obscure Object of Desire, it's the impossible physical beauty of his two lead actresses. But even this is something that Buñuel knows how to defuse, having already made two films with Catherine Deneuve. In spite of the copious nudity in the film, it never finds itself overheating. When Buñuel stages Conchita's nude dance, he completely subverts it by providing us with an audience of stereotypical Japanese tourists, as if it's just another sight to see. All of this ensures that Conchita is Mattieu's object of desire rather than the audience's. Buñuel's deadpan style is perhaps the most inscrutable element of the film. It lets the audience draw its own conclusions.

No comments: