Thursday, October 13, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

(Luis Buñuel, France/Spain, 1977)

Buñuel's last film, and my first viewing of his work in a long while.  It was an excellent refresher, and that inimitable mixture of Bunuel's - both sprightly and dark, intellectual and playful, fleet and severe -  brought me immediately back into the peculiar world of his films.  This world, among its many wonders, remains one of the best creative renderings of the dream state.  Approaches to the subconscious in cinema are strikingly varied - two vivid and contrasting examples are David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky - but nobody ever did it quite like Buñuel.  By blurring the line between conscious and unconscious, Buñuel creates a waking dream, something closer to how dreams often feel to the dreamer - that is, they feel like life, except subtly, elusively different.  Only upon waking do we realize the strangeness of what just transpired.  All of which is to say that consciousness - and by extension, reality itself - is relative, a truth Buñuel understood better than almost anybody.

Of a piece with this understanding is the awareness of the subconscious in daily, waking life - the extent to which we are powered, and often, tragically, imprisoned by our dreams.  Much of this, on a conceptual level, came right out of mainline surrealism, but Buñuel brought it to new imaginative heights, and crafted a uniquely cinematic approach.  As such, his films fuse the dream world with the world of images, and in doing so weave a glittery web that seems to catch every node of human affairs - sex, politics, psychology, metaphysics, art, etc.

Sex, of course, was paramount among these.  That Obscure Object is a particularly feverish tale, full of concentrated passion, dangerously frustrated.  Fernando Rey, a Bunuel staple, here depicts Mathieu, once again a hapless middle-aged bourgeois, host to simmering and unrealized urges.  But Buñuel is interested in far more than satire.  There's a pathos to Mathieu, for all of his lecherousness, a strain of sympathy for him and his doomed pursuit of sexual fulfillment.  Of course, he readily mixes this up with love, a fatal mistake but a universally human one, or so Buñuel seems to believe.  To some degree, Mathieu knows he's being ridiculous, and yet no amount of disappointment or stoicism will release him from his pursuit.

His object is the willfully obscure Conchita, played in alternate scenes by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.  This double-casting is one of the great cinematic ploys of Buñuel's oeuvre, all the more so because it doesn't readily admit explication.  It works however you need it to: highlighting the abstract quality of desire, changeable and elusive, the radical subjectivity of Mathieu, and the irreconcilability of desire with reality: only in a fantasy can Conchita be both the slut and the virgin, the temptress and the angel, the lissome model and the curvaceous dancer.

Behind all of this is the backdrop of political unrest, the frequent bombings, shoot-outs and hijackings.  But for all of this ambient chaos, Mathieu and his set can never be fully distracted from their petty interests and indulgences.  In part, this an acknowledgment is the famous Id, a roiling sub-basement of violent forces, barely contained.  But it's also a familiar world, not terribly different from our own, and we are queasily reminded of our own habits of distraction.  The full dimensions of life's folly - our pursuit of what we cannot have, which we pursue all the more ardently for its impossibility - are glaringly present in Buñuel, and for all of his humor (about which I haven't said enough - in short, it's a wonderfully understated hilarity), it is a harrowing thing to behold.   

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