27 July 2007

The Terrorism of Desire

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:19 am

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.)



  1. We do not desire everything that is forbidden, yet whatever we do desire turns out to be forbidden.

    I’m reminded of kids. When a rule is made and the child believes him/herself to be unobserved, the child will attempt to push at the boundaries just to see what will happen.

    Perhaps, for adults, there is even an unconscious desire for a consequence that kicks in?


    Comment by samlcarr — 27 July 2007 @ 1:17 pm

  2. The consequence means that someone is paying attention to you, that what you do matters — it’s reaffirming in a way.

    I wonder if kids are amazed that sometimes their parents can’t see them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 July 2007 @ 4:56 pm

  3. I think they are. kids often believe that their parents are omniscient and that they have mysterious ways of finding out what mischief one has been up to.

    With adults, I wonder if the seemingly deliberate antinomianism isn’t really a plea for attention from God?


    Comment by samlcarr — 27 July 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  4. Very possibly. This seems like one of those Nietzschean genealogies: God exists because somebody needs to be entertained by all that naughtiness performed in the dark.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 July 2007 @ 6:07 pm

  5. I remember that guilty look over the shoulder when one is about to do the naughty forbidden thing: Frightened but also strangely excited, perhaps not so much with the infringement itself as with the possibility of getting caught.

    One thinks of the car chase, or the criminal who leaves clues, and if that doesn’t work the clues get more obvious – and this is flirting with society. So then the parallel with god would perhaps be more like mind games, fantasies, or perhaps the elaborate and ongoing attraction-rejection rituals as found in Bunuel’s movie?


    Comment by samlcarr — 27 July 2007 @ 6:33 pm

  6. People are strange creatures. I still go out of my way to blaspheme even though I’m pretty confident there’s no one there to be offended. Maybe I’m unconsciously hoping to be punished just to prove me wrong.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 July 2007 @ 7:32 pm

  7. I just bought Y tu mama tambien, so I will comment shortly. I never saw that Bunuel film, but it sounds juicy. Angel of Destruction is one particularly interesting title we should discuss once.


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 July 2007 @ 3:37 am

  8. In contrast with Lynch’s Inland Empire, where the same actress plays multiple roles in the same film, here in Bunuel’s movie we have multiple actresses playing the same role. Maybe the intentions are similar: to emphasize psychological objects and the forces that move them around, rather than to focus on specific individuals and their unique egoistic motivations.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 July 2007 @ 11:57 am

  9. multiple actresses playing the same role.

    maybe the intent was to show how the structural positions in the burgeois order always remain the same, that would fit in Bunuel´s general dark parodies…
    and Lynch of course is a Bunuel student par excellance, ever since he put that severed ear in Blue Velvet…


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 July 2007 @ 9:12 pm

  10. What are the politics of this movie? The girl is poor but haughty; her mother acts as if they once had money but lost it somehow. They have no real qualms about taking the rich man’s money, no sense that they don’t deserve it. Matthieu tries to buy Conchita, and the mother plays along, which pisses Conchita off. She wants to establish a gift economy in which what she offers (but refuses to give) is worth an unlimited amount of money. So it’s a disruption of capitalism. And she doesn’t play fair: she offers, then takes back; she’s seductive, then she’s sadistic, sometimes from one line to the next.

    The sexual politics is disruptive, radical, but not Marxist — more anarchistic. Near the end we hear an announcement that a new alliance of right-wing terrorists are now striking back at the lefties, but in fact joining forces with the left in a general effort to disrupt the overall social order. So: left and right extremism are equated, and equally valued, if they can bring an end to this corrupt social order.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 July 2007 @ 4:40 am

  11. Interesting. I was just at lunch. I was sitting outside in the shade, and this extraordinarily beautiful woman walks by. The kind of beauty, however, that doesn’t get so much attention…because she was wearing some plain blue shirt that could have been buttened DOWN FURTHER (but she chose not to), a pair of averagely-tight “long sleeve” (lol) jeans (nothing you would see on some hip-hop video), no make-up (I don’t think) and a pony tale. When she got in her car and left, without aknowledging myself nor the guy next to me in any sort of flirtatious “look at me” kind of way, I said to the dude next to me, “Good gosh.”

    He said, “Aaahh…that’s too easy. Girls like that; they’re too easy. I could have gotten her number in 10 seconds; I promise.” No really, that’s what he said (what a cheese ball). Then he said, “Its the flirty and attention-grabbing ones that are harder to get. They’re better.” I was quiet for a moment, and said, “But are they REALLY harder, or are they just PLAYING harder to get, to make them look better?” He said, “Well, no they are REALLY harder. Beause that way, when you try hard to get them, it feeds their conceit.” Strange and circular circular conversation.

    Strange way of thinking, to me. But pertinent to this conversation. Kind of annoying and/or frustrating to me, since that’s the way “the game” is assumed to work. Sorry, but I just don’t want to play that idiotic game. Is there another way to do it!?


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 1 August 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  12. Interesting conversation. Hard to tell if this guy knows what he’s talking about or not, but I suspect he’s onto something, at least about the ones that turn him down. Either that or they just find him annoying.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 August 2007 @ 11:26 am

  13. FYI, when I say “idiotic game,” I’m not referring to your post.

    As far as whether the guy knew what he was talking about…what I find interesting is…I’m nearly posotive that he’s never studied the things you’ve been exploring in this series of blog posts…and yet it is reflected in his habitual way of thinking. I’m not sure if that means that human’s screwed up habits are ingrained in Freud/Lacan, ect or if Freud/Lacan, ect. are ingrained in people’s habits.

    By “screwed up,” of course, I am referring to the idea that this guy’s self-worth is wrapped up in whether or not the showy women, who produce his desire for them, turn him down or give him what he wants. I suspect that not all women find him annoying in the same way as I thought him a cheese ball. I suspect that he finds desirable the women who make me want to fuss them out (among other slightly more sexual things, lol).


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 2 August 2007 @ 12:09 pm

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