Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Reel Deal: That Obscure Object Of Desire, 1977

Luis Buñuel was one of the principal architects of Surrealism, and this, his last and one of his greatest films, testifies as well as anything to the explosive political power of that enduring 20th century movement.

In it, wealthy bourgeois Frenchman Mathieu (Fernando Ray) recounts his infatuation with the much younger Conchita, a working-class dancer who has cast an erotic spell over him, to a group of fellow travellers on a cross-country train. In a series of extended flashbacks, we witness Mathieu's unending struggles to possess her using his money and position, as she repeatedly eludes his grasp in ever more outlandish manners.

It might not sound like a film with the theme of revolution at its heart, but, as with Conchita, looks can be deceiving. Ah yes, did I mention that Conchita literally changes bodies during the course of the movie? The film is probably most renowned for Buñuel's inspired decision to cast two actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) in the role of this ultimate femme fatale, alternating between them from scene to scene, without anyone in the world of the movie seemingly noticing. As a metaphor for our failure to grasp one another, it is perfectly apt. For Mathieu and us, Conchita can be construed as autonomous, manipulative, free-willed, sinister, innocent and psychotic, and our reactions are likely to vary from minute to minute.

But the casting decision is also a bravura example of metaphorical fluidity, where different objects of desire are substituted for one another and assume a unified, destabilising meaning. It's a very Surrealist gesture, as practised for instance by Georges Bataille in his notorious pornographic work Story of the Eye, where globular objects - an egg, a bull's testicle, and finally an eyeball - are substituted for one another as erotic toys in successive episodes of sexual transgression. Bataille and Buñuel both play upon the way in which this fluidity and traversing of boundaries, where inanimate items and persons can share the same shifting identity - is itself both intensely erotic and politically potent. Indeed, elsewhere Bataille defines eroticism as the transgression of limits, and Conchita's repeated, protean transgressions therefore make her not only a supremely erotic object of desire, but also an actively erotic force of disturbing power.

Conchita's shifting persona is the most prominent of the film's surrealist touches. In the film's grammar, it becomes allied with the irruptions of terrorist activity Mathieu happens upon in metropolitan France as he goes about his imperturbably horny quest of conquering his beloved. We witness car bombings and dead bodies in Parisian streets, but Mathieu passes them by almost obliviously. Buñuel never lets us know the cause of this revolutionary ferment, but the juxtaposition with Mathieu's aloof, privileged bourgeois lifestyle suggests class warfare. If nothing else, by placing Mathieu's odyssey in this context, Buñuel is clearly mocking the disengagement and apathy of the closeted, arrogant middle-classes that Mathieu represents.

And within this context, Conchita comes increasingly to resemble an exterminating angel (to borrow from the title of an earlier Buñuel film) of the political and social forces amassed against Mathieu in his smug, sealed-off little world. Her evasion, and the surrealist methods with which it is evoked, emerge as a means of resistance to and a weapon against the capitalist order Mathieu signifies.

In his final work, then, Buñuel reaffirmed the uses of surrealism that he had helped to shape in his youth: Once again, the ideology's destabilisation and traversing of boundaries acts as a necessary affront to the complacent and terrible order of the accepted world.