Luis Bunuel was born in 1900; Jacques Lacan, in 1901. Both grew up in Catholic countries and attended Jesuit schools. Both associated with the important surrealistic artists and writers of their time. Both lived in Paris. For both the object of desire became a kind of obsession. But whereas Lacan grew up in Paris, Bunuel was born and raised in a medieval Spanish town. Maybe that’s why for Bunuel desire remains more primal, more obsessive, more religious, more sadomasochistic than it does for Lacan. No, that’s not quite it. Lacan analyzes perverse desire; Bunuel shows it.
In Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, an aristocratic older gentleman becomes obsessed with a much younger working-class woman who appears in his life as a new maid on the serving staff in his elegant home. Matthieu follows Conchita around slavishly, lavishing attention and expensive gifts on her. She seems cooperative enough, to the point of sharing his bed. But she will not give him what he wants: her virginity. She tells him that he doesn’t really love her, that once he gets what he wants he’ll abandon her. He protests, he pleads, he threatens, to no avail. Conchita is capricious, alternately confessing her affection and devotion, only to taunt Matthieu cruelly when he abases himself before her. He tries to free himself of his obsession, going so far as to have her deported from France. But he’s drawn to her, following her to Seville, where his humiliation reaches its nadir. Finally he’s had enough, and he beats her. When Conchita follows him to the train station, pleading for reconciliation, Matthieu pours a bucket of water on her (this is where the movie begins; most of the story is told retrospectively).
It’s a straightforward tale, but there are strange features in the telling. The turmoil of this perverse love story is punctuated periodically by violent and seemingly random acts of terrorism, the motives of which are unexplained but which are attributed in media accounts to the enigmatic left-wing Revolutionary Society of the Baby Jesus. Conchita repeatedly walks away but, through the most unlikely coincidences, she keeps showing up in Matthieu’s life: in the aftermath of an armed robbery perpetrated on him in a Swiss park, as a coat-check girl in a restaurant where he’s eating lunch, in an apartment window he happens to be passing by. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the role of Conchita is played by two different actresses: one a thin and chic Parisienne, the other a darkly voluptuous Spaniard. The two women alternate in the part without apparent rhyme or reason. Sometimes a scene will begin with one Conchita, switch to the other, then back again. Granted, the girl is two-faced, but both actresses show us both faces of Conchita.
Bunuel never explained why he used two lead actresses to play the same part, but here’s my theory. It’s not the specific woman that’s important. The “obscure object of desire” can move from one receptacle to another, as if it has a life of its own. The actresses aren’t the same; maybe the character they play isn’t the same either. Maybe the French maid isn’t the same girl as the robbers’ accomplice, or the hat-check girl, or the flamenco dancer in Seville. Maybe it doesn’t matter who she is; it’s the object of desire that remains constant.
So is woman the object, the unfulfilled sexual attraction without which a man feels incomplete? It would seem so, but then there’s the title telling us that the object is “obscure.” And though Matthieu is the narrator of the story, though he portrays himself as the pathetically masochistic captive of desire, he too seems to possess an allure for Conchita. She also desires him, or something he has. Matthieu’s desire for her bestows value on Conchita; she desires his desire; it’s what gives her that haughty self-assurance. But she despises him for it; she recognizes her dependence on him at the very moment she feels the most full of herself. And so she pushes him away. But as soon as he threatens to leave, as soon as he begins to reject her, she reels him back in.
The object moves back and forth between the two of them, his attentions alternately attracting and repelling her; her refusals alternately attracting and repelling him. And the inescapably obsessive part of it is that her repulsions attract him, while his repulsions attract her. There is no escaping this mutual terrorism of desire, short of blowing the whole thing up.
(Certainly this film by Bunuel — his last, made when he was in his mid-seventies — manifests the Lacanian idea of desire stimulated by prohibition, discussed at length in a series of recent posts about Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, especially in this one and this one. One can also regard the movie as a precursor to Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, discussed even more recently, where Luisa brings the old Spanish obsessional desire to the younger generation of Mexico. Other relevant posts include this one, about Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, and this one, about another Bunuel film, made more than twenty years prior to That Obscure Object of Desire.)