1.30.2017

Coitus interruptus


Fernando Rey and Carole Bouquet in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Delayed gratification runs throughout the films of Luis Buñuel like a spasmodic nerve.  In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), the characters keep sitting down to a dinner that they never get to eat; in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1956), the main character is a would-be serial killer whose attempts to commit murder are perpetually getting bungled.  The plot of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) is driven by the ceaseless efforts of Mathieu, a middle-aged gentleman of means, to bed the coy, elusive—and supposedly virginal—Conchita, a Spanish dancer who lives in genteel poverty with her widowed mother.  The film is told in flashback, as Mathieu recounts his years-long pursuit of Conchita, who taunts, goads, and thwarts him at every turn, at one point deliberately making love with another man in the garden of the villa she has just convinced Mathieu to buy for her while he watches, tormented, from behind the bars of a locked gate.  (Mathieu is played with devilish urbanity by Fernando Rey, one of Buñuel’s favorite actors; Conchita is played, in a surreal twist typical of Buñuel, by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.)

The other Conchita: Angela Molina.

That Obscure Object of Desire was Buñuel’s last film, and it’s one of his best, a kind of summa of his pet themes and obsessions, made with the sure hand of an artist having come to the end of a long and successful career.  Even visually, the film is crisp, sunny, bright, and sharp.  (Pauline Kael referred to the “cutting light” of Seville, where much of it was shot.)  But, as elsewhere in Buñuel, the pleasant, innocuous surfaces of That Obscure Object stand in tension with the sinuous perversity of its characters, who are busily engaged with each other in maniacal games of sadism and masochism.  The film is based on a French novel, Le Femme et le pantin, from 1898; unread by me, it sounds as if it bears some resemblance to Sacher-Masoch’s classic Venus in Furs (1870), in which a Galician nobleman is routinely humiliated by his female lover’s dalliances with other men—a routine that arouses as much as it enrages him. 

Captivated: Mathieu watches Conchita and her lover from behind the gate.

I see Mathieu as a masochist in the purest sense of the word, a connoisseur of exquisite pain whose attraction toward Conchita is intensified by the constant threat of being cuckolded by her.  In many ways, the Buñuel protagonist he most closely resembles is the hero of Èl (1953), Francisco, whose insane jealousy of his wife begins to look less and less like a source of torment and more and more like a source of perverse pleasure as the film goes on.  It would seem that Francisco loves making himself miserable by imagining his wife cheating on him.  And if one loves making oneself feel miserable, can that feeling really be called misery?  Mathieu’s story, too, comes to feel less and less like one of frustrated desire and more and more like one of love.  That’s because in Buñuel’s topsy-turvy world of kinks and fetishes love looks a lot like pain.  Along these lines, Mathieu’s final humiliation—Conchita douses him with a bucket of water in front of a train-car full of people—feels like the real consummation that he’s been desiring all along.      

Mathieu's final humiliation consummated.

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