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Buñuel’s Private Lessons

That Obscure Object of Desire

a film directed by Luis Buñuel

The idea of Spain had a certain vogue in France in the nineteenth century, from Mérimée and Gautier to Debussy and Ravel. It meant, usually, Granada and Seville, orange trees, boleros, secret gardens, southern nights, gypsies, guitars, castanets, and abrupt, capricious passions unknown to the colder civilizations of the north. It meant dark-eyed, dark-haired beauties—so much so that a character in Flaubert’s Education sentimentale, published in 1869, can claim to be tired of such things (“Assez d’Andalouses sur la pelouse!“), while the hero of Pierre Louÿs’s La Femme et le pantin, published in 1898, is so entirely trapped inside this dusky Iberian fantasy that he can regret never having had a blonde mistress, inadvertently suggesting a title to Luis Buñuel as he does so: “J’aurai toujours ignoré ces pâles objets du désir.” Buñuel’s new film is described as “inspiré par” Louÿs’s novel.

Louÿs’s La Femme et le pantin is a minor, elegant, slightly sickly piece of work. Mérimée’s Carmen here becomes Concha, she is very young, almost an anticipation of Lolita; and she is less a person than an incarnation of the worst hopes and fears of men who say they love women. She is a virgin, for example, that dream of possessive Don Juans, the mirage of a female who would be neither a whore nor your wife nor the wife of somebody else. She flaunts her virginity at Don Mateo, the hapless, aging hero of this story; offers it to him and holds him at bay, since she knows that he can’t have what he wants without simultaneously losing it. She undresses in front of him but won’t sleep with him; gets into bed with him but is wearing an intricate, impenetrable corset.

At this point the mirage becomes nightmare, and the corset signals the end of Mateo’s youth, because he thinks all women now, for him, will wear such corsets or will want to: closed legs wherever he goes. And the nightmares then multiply. Concha dances nude for a group of tourists, her virginity still intact but somehow scattered. She makes love to someone else before Mateo’s horrified eyes, her virginity given to a young, handsome fellow who is everything Mateo is not, or is no longer. Mateo beats her, and this, it turns out, is what she wanted all along. She grovels in delight, and confesses she was faking with the young man, solely to torment Mateo. This unlikely story happens to be true. Mateo takes her, and the two embark together on a long life of misery and mutual torture—Concha inventing infidelities, and sometimes actually performing them, so that Mateo will knock her about when she comes home. But if she likes punishment, Louÿs says, she also likes the crime, not for the pleasure it gives her, but for the pain it causes others: “Her role in life ended there: to sow suffering and watch it grow.” All of this, in one form or another, finds its way into Buñuel’s movie.

As masculine terror sprung to life, as a figment escaped from Mateo’s shaky psyche, Louÿs’s Concha is very persuasive. As a woman, of course, she is merely a familiar scapegoat, bearing the blame for all the male anxieties which victimize her, and La Femme et le pantin, unfortunately, is more interested in the scapegoat than it is in the terror. Indeed, it identifies the terror only to pile it up on the scapegoat. Mateo’s beating Concha is a particularly murky subject in this respect. In one sense, this is Concha’s greatest victory and Mateo’s greatest humiliation: a Spanish gentleman, a royalist and a romantic, is forced, repeatedly, to hit a woman—the disgrace is far worse than anything else that happens to him. Yet even the phrasing I’ve just used shows what a strange proposition this is. It’s not happening to him, it’s happening to her, and beneath the subtle issue of broken masculine honor lies a crude and ugly old doctrine: women can be kept in their places only by force, and what’s more, they like it that way.

La Femme et le pantin, then, combined Romantic Spain with a Nineties’ morbidity—Louÿs is supposed to have been Oscar Wilde’s favorite novelist. When Julien Duvivier directed Brigitte Bardot in a version of the story made in France in 1959, the Lolita aspect of Concha’s character no doubt received something of a lift, and the Nineties were modernized through Bardot’s screen character, by then notorious—I’m guessing a bit here, since I’ve seen only stills and posters of this film. But when Josef von Sternberg cast Marlene Dietrich in the role—in The Devil Is a Woman, 1935, the last film Sternberg made with Dietrich, closing a series which had contained The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, and The Scarlet Empress—both Spain and the Nineties disappeared into a world which was all Sternberg’s own: crowds, carnival, masks, silhouettes, Rimsky-Korsakov; complicated, constricting sets, all blinds and shutters and fragile, slatted doors; torrential rain, umbrellas, a duel in a downpour, the climate and atmosphere of a universal, nameless tropic; and above all Dietrich, the lucid, calculating, spectacular monarch of all this.

Dietrich looks about as Spanish as the Snow Queen. With Dietrich, Concha ceases to be a child or a sadist, and becomes simply a remarkable woman who likes power and is entertained by weakness in others. No question of virginity here, she has a lover, and flaunts him in front of her Don Mateo (here called Don Pascual). Money, important in Louÿs, is essential in Sternberg; that is why Dietrich is bothering with her puppet-lover at all. She needs the funds he provides.

She is regally, cynically insincere. “As I write this,” she says, “my heart is bleeding, and my eyes are filled with tears.” She is not writing, she is dictating to a scribe; her eyes are clear and dry, she wears a faint pout of contempt, and her heart, we may be sure, is unscratched and all her own. “That woman,” her lover says later, in a line which Sternberg (or Dos Passos, who receives a writing credit) ought to have resisted, “has ice where others have a heart.” And in one wonderful moment, where the whole cruel myth flashes out, she is fussing with her hair, abstracted, busy, indifferent. Her distraught lover says, “I love you, Concha. Life without you means nothing.” Dietrich, without turning her head or ceasing to dab at her hair, says, in her slightly metallic voice, “One moment, and I’ll give you a kiss….’

What men seem to want in this fantasy is not to be ill-treated but to be ignored. The turn in the myth comes when Concha is shown to have a warm heart after all. A duel is added to the Louÿs story. Don Mateo/Pascual, an excellent shot, able to put a bullet through the corner of a playing card at some distance, doesn’t even fire in defense of his life; is hurt; and Concha, touched by such perfect devotion, leaves his rival and returns to spend the rest of her days with her damaged and aging but victorious hero.

At least, this is what the plot says. Dietrich’s face and manner say something else, altogether more oblique and interesting. When she visits her wounded lover in the hospital, he is still angry, and refuses her the forgiveness she asks. He growls, “Are you going, or do I have to call one of the orderlies?” She says, “I’m going,” moves to the door, opens it, looks at the figure on the bed, pretends to close the door, but stands there contemplating what we are supposed to realize is her changed life. Now she knows how much he loves her, her icy heart has thawed, and she’s decided to come back to him for keeps. But we can’t really see any of this. Dietrich in close-up looks like Dietrich, not like a woman whose heart is thawing. That is, she looks remote, intelligent, amused, beautiful, poised, and scheming. She is doing sums in her head, grinning delicately as she ponders what is worth what.

This shot, held for a long time, makes nonsense of what the movie wants to say, but it is unforgettable. Dietrich, in the midst of all this messy mythology, reclaims her privacy, makes her own choices. It’s just that we don’t know what she chooses, or why. Rita Hayworth, later, was able occasionally to get something of this effect on the screen. But one never felt she was really making choices, and she couldn’t prevent the mythology from spilling over into her life.*

The descendant of Dietrich and Bardot, in Buñuel’s version of the Louÿs novel, was apparently to have been Maria Schneider—a Seventies Bardot, perhaps, but not a Seventies Dietrich. Early in the shooting Buñuel replaced her not by another woman, but by two women, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, the first French, wry, quiet, slender, mocking, and perhaps cruel; the second Spanish, heavier, darker, duller, and no sort of actress at all. The reasons for this trick are no doubt playful rather than profound, and the general floating effect is splendid. The terrible. Concha, the femme who used to be so fatale, is reduced to a series of alternating appearances, now one girl, now the other, and the lovelorn Don Mateo (here a dapper Frenchman called Mathieu Fabert, played with wit and fussy charm by Fernando Rey) doesn’t even notice the difference. Not only that, the film doesn’t notice the difference. Both girls are called Concha, live in the same places, wear the same (or nearly the same) clothes, have the same mother, and have the same voice on the sound track. Only movie-goers, trained to attend to appearances, to look for the actress hiding in a role, see any of this—the message is only for them. And the message is sly and double. Women, it suggests, are such abstractions for men that it doesn’t matter what they look like and feel like, as long as they show up in the right places and answer to the right names. And further, men are actually interested in only one part of a woman’s anatomy—the dark object of desire which is one meaning of the French title of the movie—so no wonder the rest of her body and her life is out of focus.

On the other hand, at any given moment of the unfolding of the film, the use of the two actresses is at best meaningless and at worst a nuisance. They don’t represent twin, antithetical aspects of Concha in any serious way; they don’t change over according to different moods in Mateo/Mathieu. And even the elegant antimasculine gag I’ve just unraveled is clouded by some sort of Platonic conception of the perfect man-eater: French and ironic, Spanish and sultry, all rolled into one by a persistent zigzagging of the mind. In fact, Carole Bouquet is so good, so much a young, quick, sinister echo of Dietrich, that the movie thrives on all the light and complicated meanings that cluster around her; while Angela Molina is such an old-fashioned vamp, such a straightforward picture of woman as tease and betrayer, that the movie slumps whenever she is given any very large part of it.

  1. *

    I should like to thank Charles Silver, of the Museum of Modern Art, for his kindness in letting me see The Devil Is a Woman.

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