Saturday, November 22, 2008

Now I'm Sure You Love Me

In the comments section of my post about Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, I said that I planned on following up on that film with that same director's That Obscure Object of Desire, which I also planned to write about. Commenter and fellow blogger Ed Howard then astutely observed the following:

...[That Obscure Object of Desire is] if not Bunuel's absolute best...certainly up there... It's no easier to write about than Viridiana is, though; I won't spoil it but I can promise you'll be puzzling over the meaning of many of Bunuel's aesthetic devices and choices in that film. I think what I like about Bunuel is that he so consistently short-circuits the tendencies of auteurist viewers to think of his choices in thematic terms. He calls attention to his aesthetics in very showy ways, and there are obvious thematic unities in his work, but he also makes sure that there's an element of ambivalence and ambiguity underneath everything, preventing any pat interpretations.

Having now seen That Obscure Object of Desire, I now know that the above is so true that I feel very tempted to use it as my way out of putting in the work of writing about it. But I made a promise to the the world, and I'm a man of my word.

First, the obligatory synopsis: Fernando Rey plays Mathieu, a wealthy man who we first meet boarding a train after parting very belligerently with a woman. The other passengers in his train car are curious about the scene they've just witnessed, so Mathieu decides to tell them his story. The woman, Conchita (famously played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) was a former maid of his, with whom he fell deeply in love. Early in their bizarre relationship, Conchita tells him that she's a virgin and wishes to remain so until Mathieu proves to her that he wants more from her than sex, although, as the months go by, and the two break up and get back together over and over again, she persists in casually torturing him with her body. Throughout all this, Bunuel peppers the story with references to acts if terrorism being perpetrated throughout Paris by, we eventually discover, both extreme left and extreme right-wing political groups.

So. Where do people usually begin with all this? With the fact that two different actresses play Conchita, of course (generally, Bouquet and Molinia alternate scenes, but occasionally they switch mid-scene). Why did Bunuel do this, and what does it mean? Early in the film, I began trying to pin down differences between the scenes featuring Bouquet and those featuring Molina -- an idea I imagine no one has ever thought of before. At first, I thought I actually noticed a few things -- for one, Bouquet seemed to appear nude far more than Molina. That changed in the second half of the film, but still might be significant. Another thing is that the character is a Spanish girl living in France, and when Conchita is at her most, er, Spanishy, she is inevitably played by Molina, who is herself Spanish; Bouquet, not incidentally, is French. Let's see, what else...oh yeah, at one point my wife, who wasn't actually watching the film, but was in and out of the room while I watched, asked at one point if Conchita had changed back to the "nice one". By "nice one" she was referring to Molina, who did indeed project far more warmth in the early part of the film, and it's during that section that my wife said this. It's worth mentioning that my wife didn't see the end of the film, which is very Molina-centric, and during which section "nice" would probably not be the first word anyone would first think of in relation to Conchita or Molina.

Why do this at all? The story is told in flashback, so maybe using two actresses (who are, by the way, not dissimilar in appearance) is simply Bunuel's way of addressing the problems of personal memory, or, maybe more likely, it's his way of showing the fractured nature of her personality. Maybe, in fact, it's a storytelling device (I'm going with the idea here that "character is action", meaning character is story, and so on). One thing that has especially struck me about these last two Bunuel films I've watched is how precise they are in their storytelling -- there aren't a lot of wasted seconds of screentime in either film -- and how original and involving both are as stories.

I feel like I'm not supposed to admit to liking a film by someone like Bunuel because the story is "gripping", because then some people will accuse me of being anti-intellectual, but seriously, fuck those guys. That Obscure Object of Desire is a heck of an involving film, narratively speaking, and Bunuel strikes me as being, among many other things he apparently was, a plain old born storyteller. One of the things that, to me, is so interesting about this film is that the story is always just about a hair away from toppling over into full-on pulp crime territory. Conchita could easily have been created by James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, as could the whole film, had the ending gone in a slightly different direction. This got me thinking a little about Bunuel and genre, because I remember seeing The Exterminating Angel many, many years ago, and thinking at the time that, in its story and structure, it was not unlike an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Did Bunuel ever make a straight-ahead genre film? Not to my knowledge, but I'm beginning to notice certain pulp influences that he, if not quite hides, at least doesn't show off. Godard, in comparison, flaunted his genre influences to the point where he almost seemed to be mocking them, and I find him incredibly boring. Bunuel's hesitancy in revealing this side of himself is compelling and, to a genre-hound like myself, frustrating.

I don't know if the terrorism subplot of That Obscure Object of Desire ties into the above or not, though I'm actually inclined to think that the connection is loose at best, and is more in line with Bunuel's political side. But hey, has anyone else ever taken note of the similarities between this and the terrorism subplot in Brazil? Conchita seems to have some kind of link to the bombings in this film, though this is only hinted at, and she doesn't seem to be a terrorist herself. Still, we wonder if she might be, as we're meant to wonder about Jill in Brazil. And in the end, what am I to do with all of this? As Ed Howard seems to suggest, what I'm supposed to is just puzzle over it, try to work it out, or just let it soak in and remain mysterious. Which is fine by me. The Milky Way is next.


Marilyn said...

Indeed, Bunuel did make "straight" films - the most prominent of them being La Joven (The Young One) and Robinson Crusoe. He was indeed a master storyteller, which often redeems his sometimes lackluster cinematic skills. I think people start forgetting about his stories because he tends to tell the same one over and over; then it just becomes fun to see how ridiculous he's going to make his male protagonist and how he's going to work in his leg and lace fetishes. It's almost pornography but with a great deal more wit and care.

And, of course, Marilyn Monday will be Angela Molina.

bill r. said...

But neither of those "straight" films are really genre films, are they? Maybe they are, but I was wondering if he'd ever made a straight-up crime film, or anything like that. Of course, The Exterminating Angel and Un Chien Andelous have horror elements, but even I wouldn't argue that they're horror films. Actually, I haven't seen Angel in about ten years, so maybe when I see it again I will start arguing that, but not until then.

Marilyn said...

If you consider erotica a genre--and I do considering the many famous and fine films that belong to it, such as The Story of O and In the Realm of the Senses--then he's most certainly made one very straight-up genre film and quite a few with hallmark elements of the genre.

Ed Howard said...

Nice job of grappling with a very tough film, Bill. Not much to add, except that this is a film where Bunuel very consciously plays with the disjunctions between sexuality and politics: Mathieu and Conchita are so involved in their private psychosexual dramas that the world could be blowing up around them and they'll hardly notice. It's a sly reminder from a director who's always been equally intrigued by sex and politics, that one should not focus on one to the detriment of the other.

The Milky Way is a very different kind of Bunuel film, one where the storytelling isn't nearly as important as the succession of themes and images: in that respect it's part of a loose stylistic trilogy with Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Phantom of Liberty, the latter of which is another of my favorite Bunuels, and certainly his funniest movie. These films are arranged more like surrealist sketch comedy shows than tight narratives.

And Godard boring? Yikes.

bill r. said...

Mathieu and Conchita are so involved in their private psychosexual dramas that the world could be blowing up around them and they'll hardly notice.

In the case of Mathieu, at least, can you blame him? I think I'd have a pretty hard time focusing on the news myself if I was being jerked around like that.

Again, though, what about the possibly connection between Conchita and the terrorists (presumably the left-wing ones)? That odd mugging of Mathieu early on seemed like a pretty large clue to me, one which was never really added to.

And Godard boring? Yikes.

I'm afraid so.

Ed Howard said...

"In the case of Mathieu, at least, can you blame him? I think I'd have a pretty hard time focusing on the news myself if I was being jerked around like that."

Certainly can't blame him -- I vividly remember how well the film communicates the frustration he feels, so much so that at times it almost becomes the viewer's frustration as well. Mathieu isn't an especially likable character, but even so it's maddening to see him manipulated like that. Bunuel is trying to give both his lead and the audience a serious case of blue balls. It's similar in some ways to the technique of Discreet Charm: constantly delayed gratification is the driving narrative device of the film.

I must admit my memories of Conchita's terrorist connections (or lack thereof) are very hazy; my strongest memories of the film are of her seduction/rejection of Mathieu and the very Brazil-like bombings of the ending.

Now I'd like to see you write something about Godard, if only so I can let loose with some lengthy rebuttals. I'm sure you're tempted, heh.

bill r. said...

There was also, I think, a mild clue to Conchita and the terrorists when she witnesses a murder from the bedroom window...I think she denies that she saw anything, even though she clearly did. I must not have been focusing too well at the time, since my memory of the scene is sketchy, and I just watched the film on Saturday.

As soon as I see a Godard film that engages me, I'll write about it. Really, though, I haven't seen that many, but so far he leaves me completely cold.

Patricia Perry said...

I'm usually just a lurker here, not so much a commenter, but I just wanted to say how much I'm enjoying the posts on Bunuel - as well as the lively commentary they evoke.

My knowledge of Bunuel is spotty, at best (although I have seen "Viritdina" and my reactions to it were along the same lines as yours.) I have yet to see "That Obscure Object of Desire," but this post intrigues me.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Pat. I really enjoyed That Obscure Object of Desire, which was a bit of a relief because anytime I finally buckle down and watch a classic for the first time, I worry that I won't respond to it (which is worse than flat-out hating it), which will then cause me to feel like a Philistine. I had such an experience with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, so I'm quite pleased to find myself becoming a genuine, if slightly bewildered, Bunuel fan.

Anonymous said...

Bill, bewilderment is for me the natural response to Bunuel, and cherish it. And his warped sense of humor. And the cynical glee he barely conceals as he puts his characters through hell. And the distaste I sometimes feel when watching one of his films.

For me, Rey's being jerked around seems to be poetic justice; not only is he being jerked around by one girl, but by two, even if they're just one ...