Wednesday 20 September 2017

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, inspired by the book, La femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs
Stars: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Angelia Molina, Julien Bertheau, Andre Weber and Milena Vukotic

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Fernando Rey was born in 1917, began his film career in 1935 and remained a busy man throughout it, but he wasn’t really noticed by the world until the sixties and didn’t find fame until the seventies. In the States, he’s probably best known for playing drug lord Alain Charnier in The French Connection and its sequel, though they were far from his English language debut. That came in 1963 in The Running Man, a British film shot in Spain, and was immediately followed by The Ceremony, an American movie shot in Morocco. By that point, he’d racked up a large filmography in Spanish and a number of films in French and when he started making English language movies, they were usually westerns shot in Spain, like Son of a Gunfighter or Guns of the Magnificent Seven, indistinguishable from spaghetti westerns, Italian but also shot in Spain and usually dubbed into English, films like Revenge of Trinity or A Town Called Hell. A rare exception was his role as Worcester in Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s epic take on Falstaff.

In Europe, however, he’s probably best known for his collaborations with fellow Spaniard, Luis Buñuel, the grand master of movie surrealism. Buñuel moved around too. His first film was made in Spain in 1929, becoming what Roger Ebert described as ‘the most famous short film ever made’; that was a collaboration with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou, complete with an infamous eye-slicing scene. After the follow up, L’Age d’Or, caused a major scandal, he escaped to the US to learn from MGM; when that didn’t work out, he returned to Europe, working in the dubbing departments of Paramount in Paris and Warner Brothers in Madrid. When he shot films in Spain, they were mostly anonymous and, after the Spanish Civil War placed the fascists in charge, he moved to the States, eventually editing documentaries at MoMA until resigning after Dalí’s autobiography outed him as a communist and an atheist. By 1949, he had become a naturalised Mexican and contributed some incredible films to the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

This era is when his genius became widely recognised by an international audience. Los olvidados is the definitive visualisation of poverty, inspired by a newspaper account of the body of a twelve year old boy being discovered on a rubbish heap. While it wasn’t well received, being withdrawn from theatres after only three days and leading to calls for his Mexican citizenship to be revoked, future Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz fought for it to represent Mexico at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951. When Buñuel won as Best Director, the film’s reputation immediately changed and it currently ranks second on the 100 Best Movies of the Cinema of Mexico list, with two other Buñuel titles in the top seven, Él and Nazarín. During the 1950s, he also shot films in France, the US and even his home country, where Viridiana upset the Vatican so much that it was banned in Spain and its two production companies were disbanded. However, Fernando Rey, one of the film’s stars, happened to introduce Buñuel to producer Serge Silberman.

This was a particularly crucial introduction. Jean-Claude Carrière, one of the stars of Diary of a Chambermaid, Buñuel’s next picture, has said, ‘Without me and without Serge Silberman, the producer, perhaps Buñuel would not have made so many films after he was 65. We really encouraged him to work. That’s for sure.’ Their pictures together are often admired: especially Belle de Jour, with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli; Tristana, with Deneuve and Fernando Rey; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, with Rey; and That Obscure Object of Desire, with Rey dubbed into French by Piccoli. This fourth collaboration between Rey and Buñuel was a particularly productive one for both of them. It’s often suggested that Rey became Buñuel’s avatar on screen in his later years and it’s appropriate that here, in the director’s last picture, Rey plays the storyteller, telling the story of Mathieu Fabert in flashback to a convivial group of passengers travelling in comfort on the train from Seville to Paris.
Why would he do such a thing? Well, they’re rather intrigued as to why he dumped a bucket of water onto a battered woman who tried to board before the train left Seville, a young lady who shouts, ‘You can’t leave like this.’ Of course, as these are professional people with the good taste not to mention the incident, it takes a child to ask: ‘Mister, why did you throw water on the lady?’ After that, they’re all ears and they literally crowd around to hear the story, even when he starts out sounding like a psychopath. ‘That woman is the foulest woman who ever lived,’ he begins. ‘My only consolation is that when she dies, God will not forgive her.’ Hey, that’s serious, huh? Now you’re all paying attention too. Well, the lady’s name is Conchita and, ever since Mathieu’s butler hired her on as a chambermaid, she flits in and out of his life, in this country or that, alternately enticing and rejecting him and always confusing him. What it all means is entirely up for debate but we do dig into that meaning, not least because of a casting decision.

Apparently, Buñuel originally cast as Conchita the French actress Maria Schneider, she of Last Tango in Paris fame. However, that really didn’t work out: ‘a tempestuous argument’, to use Buñuel’s words, stopped the production and Serge Silberman planned to abandon it entirely. Then the director jokingly suggested that they use two actresses to play the same role, perhaps intending to keep the Schneider footage but shoot the rest of the film with a new hire. This progressed to what we see in the picture: two new actresses, playing Conchita apparently interchangeably, occasionally within the same scene. Of course, we can’t help but analyse this. What does it mean when Conchita enters the bathroom in the form of Angela Molina and emerges as Carole Bouquet? Many critics have tried to fathom Buñuel’s intentions, but he was a surrealist and it’s very possible that he had no intentions beyond an intriguingly subversive idea. Of course, even that acknowledgement doesn’t stop me trying to figure it out too.
Certainly there is meaning woven throughout the film. This troublesome relationship begins in France, where Mathieu lives, and it moves at points to Switzerland and to Spain, where Conchita was born. The timeframe is contemporary to the film, so the early to mid-seventies, and the backdrop Buñuel added to the source material, an 1898 novel by Pierre Louÿs, is one of terrorism. Now, for those with short memories, terrorism was a very different creature in the seventies to what we’re sadly getting used to today. Most terrorism was committed by idealistic groups who were more of an inconvenience than a threat. Sure, they hijacked planes at gunpoint, but they generally diverted them to neutral countries to bargain for hostages; they didn’t fly them into buildings on suicide runs. Passengers sat back and waited for negotiations to finish so they could fly on to their actual destinations. It’s framed here as inconvenience, at least until we start to realise that it’s echoing the relationship between Mathieu and Conchita.

Now I need to watch the film again, because I’m sure that applies to early scenes as well. Certainly, terrorist attacks seem to occur at crucial junctures in the characters’ relationship. Certainly, after one particularly cruel dismissal, Mathieu leaves in a taxi, only for it to be hijacked by terrorists; he walks away with his arms held high, a literal surrender equivalent to the symbolic one he had just given to Conchita. Certainly the ending is a relatively straightforward analogy. So, if there’s meaning to the background, what meaning can be found in the two actress approach? Is Buñuel suggesting that she has multiple personalities? Or that the actresses represent different tones or emotions? That the one is putting on an act when she becomes the other? I really don’t think so. Sure, Carole Bouquet is elegant, aloof and quintessentially French, while Angela Molina is earthy, sensual and quintessentially Spanish, but they share most other adjectives: free spirited, manipulative, teasing, challenging, deceptively submissive but really in charge.

I get the impression that Buñuel was really taking what it means to be male or female and extrapolating that to an absurd degree, so that we see the central relationship as ludicrous until we recognise parts of it from our own lives, realising that we’re ludicrous too and this surrealism isn’t quite as outrageous as it might seem. After all, on the surface, neither of these characters is much to write home about. Mathieu is a wealthy and respectable widow with impeccable manners, a string of servants and a house in the country, but he’s also a dirty old man lusting after the barely legal help. Conchita is a manipulative tease stringing him along in a shameless manner, but she’s a modern girl who knows precisely what she wants and it’s apparently not his money. It’s not much of a stretch to see this as the age old battle of the sexes, where the man only wants one thing and the woman won’t give it up like that; she wants something else that the man simply can’t comprehend.

Of course, this is a European film, so cinema was at a different level of maturity in 1977 to what we know from Hollywood; it didn’t suffer from three decades of moral censorship under the Production Code. It’s also a French film, for all that the key players were Spanish, and French film is particularly and justly known for its intelligent and nuanced exploration of human relationships. And, of course, it’s also a Luis Buñuel film and he’d spent much of his career looking at themes of class, religion and human motivation. That Obscure Object of Desire, a title which can be taken quite literally, sums up many of his themes while playing its part in the long maturation of European cinema. Put simply, Conchita responds to Mathieu when he appears to care but backs away whenever he treats her like an object; Mathieu doesn’t see the difference, so is quite willing to effectively attempt to buy her from her mother, for instance, an act which, of course, backfires on him immediately.
The script is a work of art, notably ahead of its time, and everything else builds happily upon it. The direction is superb too, with a whole bundle of scenes that stand out for attention. Could the mystery of womanhood be summed up any better than a young lady showing her wannabe lover her breasts for the first time after months of holding back, then promptly explaining that she’s not in the mood? Could the tragedy of man be symbolised any better than finally getting the woman of their dreams into the sack, only to find that she’s trussed up in some sort of knotted chastity belt and fail utterly to extract her from it? Can the battle of the sexes be brought to life better than through some of the lines of dialogue spoken here? Mathieu stops short of marriage to Conchita and tells his cousin that, ‘If we got married, I’d be surrendering my last weapon.’ Meanwhile, Conchita stops short of sex, explaining to Mathieu that, ‘If I gave you what you want, you wouldn’t love me.’ And, of course, ‘Why is sex so important to you?’

And could better actors have been found? In hands other than Fernando Rey’s, Mathieu Fabert wouldn’t be remotely as engaging. He was sixty years old when the film was released and, without attempting to insult the man, he looked it. However, he flagrantly pursues a girl quite obviously young enough to be his granddaughter. Conchita is supposedly only eighteen years old, so less than half of the age deemed non-creepy by the half plus seven formula. Maybe the formula is different in France, where morals aren’t the same as in England or the puritan United States. The actresses carry their youth well, though Bouquet was twenty and Molina twenty-two. The former was new to film, this amazingly being her first picture, though she’s made many more since; she became a Bond girl, losing out on her audition for Moonraker but being promptly cast in For Your Eyes Only instead. The latter wasn’t as new, having made half a dozen movies before this but almost a hundred since, including the multi-award winning Blancanieves.
That Obscure Object of Desire works well as the summation of the career of Luis Buñuel, whose filmography influenced many and still does today, a number of comparisons having been drawn from Darren Aronofsky’s polarising Mother! This film was nominated for two Oscars, not just as Best Foreign Language Film but also for Best Adapted Screenplay, though it did better at awards from critics societies, where it battled it out with Annie Hall in various categories. In many ways, however, it marks not the end but the end of the beginning for Fernando Rey, seventeen years Buñuel’s junior, who would continue to act for a further seventeen years. It was his collaborations with Buñuel that really put him on the map. In fact, they are how he accidentally landed the villain’s role in The French Connection; William Friedkin wanted Francisco Rabal, whom he’d seen in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, but he couldn’t remember his name, just that he was Spanish and he’d worked for Buñuel. Rey arrived instead and got the job by speaking English and French.

The success of The French Connection made him even more marketable and he appeared in many international productions during the seventies and into the eighties. He won as Best Actor at Cannes in 1977, not for this film but for Elisa, My Life, another Spanish picture, in which he played the father of Geraldine Chaplin. He won other awards for a variety of other films, mostly shot after his move back to Spanish cinema in the eighties, including yet another approach to Don Quixote, with whom he become prominently associated. He’d appeared in the Spanish feature, Don Quijote de la Mancha in 1947, then the four part German TV series, Don Quijote von der Mancha in 1965, finally taking the lead in El Quijote de Miguel de Cervantes on Spanish TV in 1991. He even provided narration for the reconstructed Don Quijote de Orson Welles a year later. He acted until his death in 1994, spending the previous two years as the chairman of the Spanish Movie Arts and Sciences Academy, fitting for the first Spanish actor to reach international fame.

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