Oct 28, 2019

That Obscure Object of Desire

Out of all the great cinematic auteur filmmakers, Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados, Belle de Jour)—a virtual one-man-cinematic-revolution—was probably the greatest in terms of sheer longevity, eclecticism, and artistic consistency as a succulently scathingly sardonic morcillismo humorist with an intrinsic flair for the intoxicatingly (yet elegantly) iconoclastic, sensually absurd, playfully pessimistic, and merrily misanthropic. Indeed, whether it be the uniquely unforgettable eye-slicing and juxtaposition of surreal sexual sadism with Richard Wagner's “Liebestod” from his opera Tristan und Isolde in his debut Un Chien Andalou (1929), proto-Aguirre, the Wrath of God action-adventure jungle allegory of Death in the Garden (1956), preternatural depictions of race-hate in the unconventionally humanistic southern gothic The Young One (1960), simultaneously psychotic yet erotic religious allegory of Simon of the Desert (1965), or the plot-free aesthetic anarchy of his perfect penultimate film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Buñuel—with his big brown bull-sized balls—always produced something strikingly singular that defied classification, expectation, and impressed his contemporaries, including respected figures ranging from a Hemingway-esque Hollywood maverick like John Huston to a melancholic Nordic master like Ingmar Bergman. As far as I am concerned, only Robert Bresson is comparable in terms of being able to manage to churn out subversive modernist masterpieces in the late-period of his career when he was technically already an old fart. In that sense, it was probably not a simple cope when Buñuel once declared, “Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese.” In fact, I would argue that Buñuel’s swansong That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) aka Cet obscur objet du désir—a film that is truly like no other aside from sharing some aesthetic/thematic similarities with other Buñuel flicks—is unequivocally one of his greatest masterpieces, which is somewhat ironic when one considers it also one of his most linear and, in turn, accessible. Admittedly, unlike with a lot of Buñuel’s films, I found myself especially enthralled for somewhat personal reasons upon a recent re-watching of this singular cinematic masterpiece for the first in well over a decade, thus confirming to me that the auteur’s films only improve for viewers with age and experience. 

 Undoubtedly, watching a man put pussy on a pedestal is a putrid thing to witness and surely something that revolts both men and women alike, albeit for somewhat different reasons. While both sexes are appalled by the emasculation that comes with such groveling behavior, women are especially disgusted by it as it spells desperation and—arguably, worst of all—a sure-thing as ladies like a chase and are bored by a pathetic bastard that is ready to commit to the figurative monogamal ball and chain. In That Obscure Object of Desire, the viewer watches with oftentimes Fremdscham-inducing delight as an old mustached frog of the rather wealthy sort as portrayed by Spanish leading man Fernando Rey disposes of all self-respect and becomes an emotional wreck over a hot twat Spanish flamenco dancer as portrayed by two different actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). Concluding in a virtually apocalyptic manner with the violent deaths of both the lovesick hero and his fiercely frigid would-be-beloved in a film set in a world plagued by an increasingly-tedious terrorist insurgency, the film also manages to express Buñuel’s lifelong obsession with linking sex and death, or as the auteur once expressed in his memoir My Last Sigh (1982), “And although I’m not sure why, I also have always felt a secret but constant link between the sexual act and death. I’ve tried to translate this inexplicable feeling into images, as in UN CHIEN ANDALOU when the man caresses the woman’s bare breasts as his face slowly changes into a death mask.” War oftentimes results in death and, as they say, love is a battlefield, but Buñuel does not depict the pangs of lovesickness in a fruity fashion as That Obscure Object of Desire presents it as the most obscenely odious of irrational obsessions; or, the most pleasantly painful path to senseless self-destruction. 

 By mere coincidence, I recently watched That Obscure Object of Desire back-to-back with Marcel L'Herbier’s singularly striking silent avant-garde feature L'Inhumaine (1924) aka The Inhuman Woman—a film that somehow manages to reconcile Expressionism with Art Deco—and could not help but notice the stark contrast between handling the central theme of a lovelorn gent going to great extremes to warm the cold cunt of a seemingly impenetrable ice queen. In L'Herbier’s aesthetic hypnotic flick, a young playboy-cum-Dr. Frankenstein not only fakes his own death to ‘impress’ his rather evil Gorgon-like opera singer love interest, but he also manages to use his pioneering techno-wizardry to bring her back from the dead in what is ultimately a rather unconventionally happy ending that almost (seemingly unintentionally) manages to mock the absurdity that comes with romantic pursuit. Not surprisingly considering the auteur behind it, That Obscure Object of Desire is nowhere near as classically romantic or heart-wrenching in terms of its depiction of the perils of all-consuming love as it is a virtual autist-garde anti-love story where the viewer begins to eventually feel contempt for both the frog protagonist and Spanish cocktease that has completely contaminated his psyche. Indeed, quite unlike L'Inhumaine, the film not only does not provide any sort of solace in the end, sort of like a ruined orgasm during self-immolation, but it is rarely, if ever, romantic, as if one of Buñuel's main objectives with the film was to completely demystify the majesty of love and romantic conquest altogether.  Undoubtedly, if that was his goal, he certainly succeeded as That Obscure Object of Desire is a virtual contra Casablanca (1942) and brazenly brilliant because of it.

 Notably, That Obscure Object of Desire is based on French lesbo-lover Pierre Louÿs’s novel La Femme et le pantin (1898) aka The Woman and the Puppet, which was previously adapted no less than four times, with Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935) starring Marlene Dietrich undoubtedly being the greatest and best known of these earlier adaptations (filmmakers Reginald Barker, Jacques de Baroncelli, and Julien Duvivier also adapted the novel). Of course, it goes without saying that Buñuel’s version is easily the most subversive and anarchistic of these adaptations.  It should also be noted that the auteur apparently previously made a failed attempt at tackling the source novel, henceforth revealing his strong commitment to the project. When asked by actor and screenwriter Tomás Pérez Turrent what interested him about Louÿs’s novel, Buñuel replied, “The idea of a man who wants to sleep with a woman and never manages to. In the book, of course, the man ends up sleeping with her. Then she tells him, ‘If you want to see me sleep with another man, come to my house tomorrow.’ The next day he went, and there she was with another man. But I was more interested in the story of an obsession that can never become a reality.” Ultimately, the film is a morbidly merry tale of male masochism and the female sadism the propels it, or as Buñuel explained in regard to what motivates the (anti)heroine’s heinous behavior, “A sadistic feeling. She takes advantage of him, she knows it’s in her best interest to keep him happy, but at the same time she hates him to death, she enjoys tormenting him.” In that sense, the film is a reminder as to why it is never a good idea to let a woman know how you really feel about them, lest you become a pathetic pawn in a grotesque gynocentric game where no gash will be smashed and all hope will be lost. Better yet, the film is also a reminder to all men that, in regard to women, one must: “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” 

 Obsessing over any one woman, especially those that you’re not even sure you can obtain, is never good and oftentimes a glaring sign of beta-boy bitch behavior yet, as someone that finds very few women attractive, including those that are technically physically attractive (yet have the personalities of gnats), I have personally fallen into this pathetic trap. For example, I somewhat recently started a ‘romance’ with a girl that, despite all the obvious red flags and qualities that I would usually consider major ‘deal-breakers,’ I could not help but be inordinately infatuated with her to the point where I felt as in control as a negro on PCP in a titty bar. Needless to say, as my intellect informed me it would probably be from the very beginning, this erotic excursion was rather brief and cost much more (especially emotionally) than it was ultimately worth, but such is the tragedy of a tyrannical testicular trance. Still, I can thankfully say that, as someone that does not physically resemble a sort of decrepit old Super Mario like the film's protagonist, I have never been in a position that was as sexless or patently pathetic as that of the rich old fart in That Obscure Object of Desire who dedicates his life and tons of his money and energy to attempting to defile a dumb dame that repays him with nothing but sadism, indifference, and heartbreak. Personally, I wanted to slap the shit out of the protagonist, as his superlatively self-deluded campaign for cream of the crop cooch is absolutely sickening to watch in a film that deserves credit for featuring the most irksome depiction of a dude thinking with his dick in cinema history in what is ultimately one frivolous farce of a dis-romance. In short, That Obscure Object of Desire is the renegade anti-romantic-comedy par excellence and a prophetic expression of avant-garde anti-thottery. 

 That Obscure Object of Desire ‘hero’ Mathieu (Fernando Rey)—a wealthy middle-aged widow that is hardly handsome yet seems to think his wealth makes him worthy of a real-life Venus de Milo—demonstrates a special sort of hatred for a young woman at the beginning of the film when he sadistically dumps a bucket of water over her head as she attempts to board the same train he is taking from Seville, Spain to Paris, France. The woman in question is the protagonist's young (ex)girlfriend Conchita (as portrayed by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) and the viewer soon discovers how Mathieu got to hate her so much in a series of flashbacks that are told to a small group of fellow travelers, including a midget psychology professor, in the same train car as him after they bear witness to his water bucket belligerence. As one can except from an old fart attempting to cultivate a clearly one-sided romance with a much younger woman that is way out of his league, Mathieu is at least partly responsible for putting himself in the pathetic position he is in as he was dumb enough to almost immediately offer virtually the entire world to Conchita soon after they initially met at a house where she was working as a friend’s maid.  Of course, Mathieu probably also felt it would not be too hard for a rich prick like himself to obtain a mere maid, but he could not have been more wrong.

Undoubtedly, Conchita’s behavior almost immediately raises a number of glaring red flags, including her patently preposterous claim that she is an 18-year-old virgin despite looking at least decade older and her naturally slutty behavior (among other things, she's a stripper with a loyal following of male friends). Additionally, aside from the fact that her father committed suicide under seemingly dubious circumstances, Conchita’s mother (María Asquerino), who Mathieu almost immediately begins financially supporting, is a somewhat nutty old bitch who, owing to being once-rich, refuses to work, bragging, “I’d rather kiss church steps then sweep doorsteps. My daughter helps me but I don’t want her to work. Because of the bad influences.” Notably, Conchita is similarly worthless as a woman as revealed by the fact that she proudly boasts after admitting she refuses to give her dubious virginity to Mathieu, “I don’t like sewing. I can’t cook.” On top of everything else, Conchita is friends with a group of handsome young twink criminals that rob Mathieu, yet the protagonist seems completely blind to the profound dubiousness of this. In short, aside from being bloated with all sort of personal and emotional baggage, Conchita has nothing to offer aside from her statuesque beauty yet Mathieu just cannot get over her despite not being able to get a little carnal taste of said beauty in a sad scenario that is akin to being friend-zoned by a Maenad. 

 As the film progresses, Mathieu’s patience is increasingly tested as he chases after Conchita while trying in vain to penetrate her main vein as a terrorist insurgency brings chaos to Europe in a backdrop that somewhat parallels the protagonist’s seemingly perennial failed (anti)romance. Although Conchita eventually allows Mathieu to touch her titties, she adamantly refuses to give up her much prized virginity as if it is the only thing she really has to offer (it is!). Eventually, Mathieu gets so fed up with Conchita’s callous cockteasing that he attempts to penetrate her by force, but ultimately fails after spending no less than 15 minutes attempting to takeoff a canvas corset that acts as a virtual chastity belt. On top of everything else, Conchita derives a sort of sadistic glee by cuckolding Mathieu, including sneaking young handsome males into her room, dancing naked for Japanese tourists, and even forcing the protagonist to watch as she fucks a male friend (though she later tries to play off such behavior as a ‘joke’ and claims the male friend was actually a homosexual). Needless to say, Mathieu completely loses it after being so ruthlessly cucked and beats her to a bloody pulp, thus inspiring the heroine to questionably proclaim as blood drips from her face, “Now I know you love me. Mateo, I’m still a virgin.” In the end, after telling his entire savagely sordid story to his rather attentive traveling companions, Mathieu still cannot help but desire Conchita despite the fact she pays him back by dumping a bucket of water onto his head. Luckily, the rancid romance comes to a swift explosive end when the two are killed in a terrorist explosion at a mall shortly after mutually admiring a seamstress that is symbolically mending a bloody nightgown. 

 Although a virtual cipher of a character, the titular twat of That Obscure Object of Desire also happens to be one of the most intensely intriguing love interests of cinema history as a sort of archetypical Madonna–whore creature that embodies qualities of both the naïve virgin and savage slut in the most insufferable ways (hence the incidental brilliance of utilizing two actresses to play one character), as if it was Buñuel’s goal to create the greatest she-beast—a cravenly cruel character-without-character (like so many women) that basks in inducing male anxieties and lovelorn lunacy, sort of like a young child slowly killing a fly—in cinema history. In that sense, it almost comes as a great cathartic relief when the protagonist and his love object are blown up in the end, as if the tension created by their emotionally terroristic disharmonious romance could only conjure up such a cataclysmic scenario. Despite the glaring pulchritude of the two lead female actresses, their beauty is almost completely extinguished in the viewer's mind by the end of the film, as the character embodies some of the most repugnant negative female stereotypes, including jealousy, pettiness, sadism, shallowness, narcissism, histrionics, stupidity, hypocrisy, projection, unreliability, flakiness, and deceptiveness, among other things. While an absurdist masterwork of cinema that is packed with plenty of playful dark humor, the film’s heroine is ultimately scarier than the greatest of female villains of both cinema and television history, including Elsa ‘Rosalie’ Bannister of The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Catherine Tramell of Basic Instinct (1992), Alexandra of Alexandra's Project (2003), and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones (2011–2019), among countless other examples.  Undoubtedly, only fellow Mediterranean Marco Ferreri (The Seed of Man, Dillinger Is Dead) has come anywhere near to Buñuel in terms of exquisitely yet brutally depicting the unflattering character of European women in the age of Occidental decline.

 Rather humorously, despite being a wealthy widow that should be worldlier when it comes to the wayward ways of women, the film’s protagonist Mathieu seems like a pussy-novice compared to his lowly servant Martin (André Weber) who declares when asked by his boss about the so-called fairer sex, “I have a friend who loves women very much, but he claims they’re sacks of excrement.” In a humorous misquote of Nietzsche, Martin also declares after examining the room where Mathieu has just brutalized Conchita, “If you go with women, carry a big stick.” In fact, the Nietzsche quote in question is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883) and actually reads: “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!” Rather revealingly, it is only when Mathieu uses his figurative whip and beats Conchita does she express any sort of love to the protagonist in what can certainly be read as a classic display of female masochism (though one certainly doubts the sincerity of her rather conveniently timed declaration of love). Either way, there is no doubt that Mathieu was too ‘terminally nice’ to Conchita to the point where the viewer could not help but feel a certain deep-seated disgust for him, especially after multiple viewings of the film. Going back to Nietzsche, he also once wrote, “Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.” Of course, the tragedy of Mathieu’s character is that, not unlike Nietzsche with his supposed great love Lou Andreas-Salomé, he does not really even get to experience any sort of high and thus comes off as the lowest of men despite his wealth and social prestige, thereupon revealing the true innate chaotic destructive power of women. 

 While Nietzsche is probably not the best guy to seek for advice on women, he probably had a point when he wrote, “Everything in woman is a riddle, and everything in woman has one solution – namely, pregnancy,” hence the proliferation of uniquely unhappy and prematurely-aged spinsters and wine aunts of the sexually used-up sort that now pollute the Occidental world and promote such socially deleterious things as intersectional feminism, xenophilia and third world alien ‘refugees,’ child drag-queens, government-subsidized abortion-on-demand, Holocaustianity, general neo-commie horseshit, and Marvel movies, among various other forms of garbage that appeals to infertile ressentiment-ridden broads that are in total denial that they wasted their lives on the false song of sexual liberation. While one could utilize Freudian psychobabble to argue that Conchita is a symbol of the male libidinal drive and the continual frustration of said drive naturally causes the explosion in the end, That Obscure Object of Desire proves to be a more enriching experience when viewed today as a cautionary tale about putting modern-day post-feminist pussy on a pedestal. Despite the film’s rather unflattering depiction of women, it apparently offended the sensitive sensibilities of gay terrorist extremists in a rare instance of ‘life-imitating-art,’ or as Buñuel—a man that, incidentally, practiced fag-bashing in his youth—explained in his autobiography, “Ironically, a bomb exploded on October 16, 1977, in the Ridge Theatre in San Francisco, where the movie was being shown; and during the confusion that followed, four reels were stolen and the walls covered with graffiti like, ‘This time you’ve gone too far!’ There was some evidence to suggest that the attack was engineered by a group of homosexuals, and although those of this persuasion didn’t much like the film, I’ve never been able to figure out why.” 

 Interestingly, despite concluding his career with a film as radically anti-romantic as That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel—a proud lapsed Catholic atheist and iconoclast that seemed to believe in nothing aside from the power of biting humor aimed at all form of authority (including the commies he once sided with in his youth)—was apparently a strong believer in not only love, but sacrificial love, as indicated by his words, “I would willingly sacrifice my liberty to love. I have already done so . . . I would sacrifice a cause to love, but each situation would have to be considered separately.” Indeed, as British film critic Raymond Durgnat noted in his book Luis Buñuel (1968), “He declared that he would renounce being the person he could be, if that were the cost of being sure of his love. He would think highly of a man who, to please the woman he loved, was willing to betray his principles.” While Buñuel also replied “I don’t know” when asked if he believed in love’s victory over the sordidness of life (or vice versa), he would also state, “I should still ask him not to betray his principles—in fact, I’d insist on it” in regard to the sacrifice of self for love. Of course, Buñuel’s belief in love can be seen in his depiction of l'amour fou in his rarely-seen Emily Brontë adaptation Abismos de passion (1954) aka Wuthering Heights. While it has certainly did little good in the long run for my life, I also believe in the power of love, including ‘mad love,’ which is also why I find the one-sided lovesickness of the protagonist of That Obscure Object of Desire to be so completely infuriating as it is a waste of pure diabolic energy on an unloving dumb dud of a dame that is probably lame in bed and really has nothing to offer outside the aesthetic appeal of a carefully manicured mannequin, hence the ‘object’ of the film’s title.  After all, at least from my experience, love tends to be a carefully cultivated post-coital phenomenon that requires a certain degree of mutually expressed emotional and physical intimacy (and anything less seems to be simple beta-boy infatuation conjured from too much fantasizing about the totally intangible). After recently re-watching That Obscure Object of Desire, I can safely say that Buñuel was onto something when he wrote, “Sometimes, watching a movie is a bit like being raped.” And, while I find the idea of a woman being able to rape a man somewhat equivocal (and I say that from experience!), Buñuel’s film demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman—even an insufferably stupid woman—can certainly completely ravage a man’s soul and turn him into a pathetic shell of his former self. 

-Ty E

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