Friday, December 03, 2010

That Obscure Object of Desire

All Bunuel movies are seductive, at least I find them so. Towards the end of his career, Bunuel only made beautiful movies. Not only are they charming and seductively so, but if a particular shot is frozen, they appear before the eyes as wonderful tapestries, as sensual images that are surreal, lush with colour. Even in typical bourgeoisie activities like having dinner, the images are extremely winning. That Obscure Object of Desire, a movie that one can watch endlessly, is certainly experimental for the object of desire is played by two actors, and the same character portrayed by two actors is certainly quite novel. When Mathieu meets Conchita by chance, a woman who lives with her mother and is actually poor, he develops an obsession for her, and in actual matter wants to sleep with her. All his advances, while not entirely unwelcome are rebuffed by her. He befriends her, buys her gifts, even goes to her apartment and loans money to her mother and sends a marriage proposal. She, very cleverly never actually declares any hatred for him but always keeps him hanging, so to say. This leads to him intimidating her and blackmailing her but she always promises consummation tomorrow which actually never comes. Against this is a background activity by a terrorist group that act in violent activities which though unconnected to this couple play a hilariously delicate part in the end.

She makes him buy a villa for her and then refuses him entry to her house and then engages in sexual activity with another friend under his very nose so to say. Mathieu narrates his story to his fellow travellers in the train from Seville to Paris and with his usual dead pan countenance, effectuates a response from them which borders in believing him. In all of his escapades where Mathieu tries to humiliate Conchita, he expects a natural response from his audience to say that all along, it was him who was being humiliated. In response to a fellow traveller after unloading a bucket of water on Conchita, Mathieu tells them that it is definitely better than actually killing her. Though his determination and her resistance seem endless, the drama ends with both walking together, she is some state of resistance and then an explosion. We are not really sure what happens to them.

Bunuel's later movies ( they have the best film titles also of all times) have small episodes connected in a loose and yet enchanting manner and yet they never seem disjointed. The movie opens with Mathieu throwing a bucket of water on Conchita. He is on the train to Paris and his fellow travellers include a woman, her daughter, an elderly gentleman and a psychologist,who is a dwarf. The milieu is cosy and tailor-made for a tale. All his actions, some of them smug and abhorrent are hilarious. Contrast this with the The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where a group of bourgeoisie men and women never actually manage to sit and have dinner for the very precise moment is interrupted by one event after another. In one incident, one of the couples whilst waiting for their guests, decide to make love in their garden for fear of being loud and in another they are interrupted by an army contingent who decide to hold army exercises. The couples are typically upper middle class and quite frivolous in what ever they do. Each scene works on it's own as a vignette, and a quirky episode is followed by a surreal dream followed by reality followed by some bizarre event or another.

In both movies, Bunuel attempts to show the hypocrisy of middle class values and manners and customs. In That Obscure Object of Desire, Conchita is actually treated like an object that Mathieu desires to sleep with and ignore her desires; it is almost that he is buying her, for his advances have nothing solemn about them. In The Discreet Charm, after each episode ends in a fiasco, the bourgeoisie group are shown walking on a highway as if without aim.
Common to both movies is Fernando Rey, who was once described as the last of the continentals. I would hate to imagine any one else play those roles. He has an air of disinterested smugness about him, as if being good and being bad are both boring things to do. His acting does not seem as acting like all for he seems naturally inclined towards such a performance. He is a natural charmer and portraying an upper class gent seems to be his born right. Angela Molina is certainly svelte and charming, almost seductively sexy while Carole Bouquet is disinterestedly casual about her own charms. The interiors, the decor, and the outdoors are magnificently beautiful. One can sometimes describe them as melancholic but on the whole, all of Bunuel's images are sexily lush, as if the beauty in itself is delicately surreal.

What one doesn't mind at times is the apparent simplicity of the stories but if you actually think, all these episodic vignettes have an underlying psychological claim for complexity. In both movies, Bunuel is wonderfully subversive and hard hitting for there are so many episodes wherein he actually leaves no institution without attacking it. Be it the Church or social
customs or bourgeoisie values and mores like marriage, Bunuel actually gnaws at the very essence of the hypocrisy that covers their outer shells. The dream sequences are actually dangerous territories for there, Bunuel charts waters that few have attempted to do before or after him. The claims for a psychological approach may not be entirely unfounded. If one considers the situations where Mathieu finds himself in with Conchita, the very idea seems surreal.

Bunuel actually pursues his usual search for exploring towards a particular end; here the object of exploration is desire. The imagery around which this is built is seemingly disarming because it seems frivolous at times but in actual manner is quite sinister. While Conchita seems to like Mathieu, she will not allow him to use her; he must win her affection. To do that, he must begin to like her and then love her, which is certainly difficult for Mathieu. It is difficult because the thinking that forms the background of his stable state is based on a patronising attitude towards such things - be it class distinctions, affection or women. And since Mathieu desires Conchita, and Conchita is certainly desirable, Bunuel plays with the psychological states of his characters and with those of his viewers. After all, if one thinks of desire, then where does it stop? Perhaps desire for a wrong thing is a wrong desire, but in one's inner mind so to say, these wrong desires are constantly pushed under the cover of lawful desires.

I must mention again with what I began.....that whatever we see or witness in a Bunuel movie is seductively beautiful. Hence, even in images that we might normally find repelling, in other places, in Bunuel world, they become erotic. Conchita played by Molina is very erotic, even a hand gesture from her can set ships launching. When both Mathieu and Conchita seemingly go up in flames, the scene appears beautiful, as if two people have not died but momentarily taken refuge in sexy flames. It is possible to be a slave to Bunuel's images ones entire life, to see from the prism of those images the ugliness of our own and surrounding images. That his imagery is described as surreal is a testimony to the beauty that he created. That he also dictates a political and moral end to his images is the highest degree of success for any artist.

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