Luis Bunuel
Luis Bunuel; drawing by David Levine

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.

What this means is that the first hour of the film is vintage Buñuel, wise, delicate, sour, and fast, the story of a man in love with a girl because she is mysterious (and virginal), half a fantasy and half a real free spirit; the story also of the girl who knows all that, but scarcely knows herself; of all women loved by men because they are out of reach; and of all women, loved or unloved, who really are out of reach, beyond the comprehension of minds addicted to looking for the wrong things. The film here is faithful to many details in Louÿs’s novel, adapting and modernizing them ingeniously. But it is very far from it in feeling. Buñuel shifts most of these scenes to Paris and its suburbs, which apparently helps him to get the brittle flavor he’s after. The Spanish scenes are either more lyrical—a sunlit square in Seville, or a dusty yellow roofscape—or more brutal—the camera climbs a cluster of palm trees and freezes into a shot of their fronds leaning toward each other, a casual and banal image which seems to say: This is your dose of Spain and the romantic south, but don’t expect me to waste any more time on this shoddy stuff.

At any rate, when Mathieu follows Concha to Seville, the film lapses into a rather dutiful rehearsal of Louÿs’s material, which loses both Louÿs’s and Buñuel’s most interesting preoccupations in the process. Concha is now plainly witch and tormentress, dances nude for the tourists, fornicates on the floor in front of Mathieu, is beaten, and follows Mathieu back to Paris. There is no mystery or delicacy here, only the worn stereotype of a woman ruining a poor old chap who simply wanted to get into bed with her. I don’t know whether Buñuel lost interest in the film, or fell himself into the mythology he had played with so brilliantly for an hour.

Buñuel will be seventy-eight in February. He made his first film in 1928: Un Chien Andalou, written and directed in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. That Obscure Object of Desire is his thirty-second movie, if we don’t count four unsigned Spanish films he had a hand in during 1935 and 1936. With a man whose talent is so restless and quirky, whose ambition so clearly is to unsettle his audiences as well as entertain them, it is reckless to speak of “maturity.” Maturity, for Buñuel, in most of its connotations would mean defeat, and he is far from defeated. Pauline Kael is right about the lightness of touch in Buñuel’s recent movies, beginning with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and she may be right to call his late style serene. Certainly Buñuel is less angry now than he was in Los Olvidados (1950), or even in The Exterminating Angel (1962). But in a sense he has always been serene, able to treat excrutiating subjects as if they belonged to someone he knew rather well but not to himself. I find the quality of these last films hard to describe.

That Obscure Object of Desire, for example, returns us very directly to Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970): the same immaculate actor, Fernando Rey, in all three cases; the same obsessive problem, the encroaching, enclosing desire of an older man for a younger woman. In Viridiana, the woman refuses the man, and he commits suicide. In Tristana, she accepts him, and they live meanly ever after, she caught up in her inescapable hatred for him, he trapped in his never-ending desire for her. In That Obscure Object of Desire, she neither rejects nor accepts him, and they seem set up for a life of cruelty and feuding very close to that of Tristana. Of course we can’t simply attribute all this anxiety to Buñuel; but he certainly knows what it’s about, and into the most beautiful of the Sevillan scenes of his new film he drops the information, passed on to Mathieu by his manservant, that someone or other is in the habit of calling women “sacks of excrement.”

This certainly doesn’t sound all that serene. On the other hand, the intricate joke lurking in the genealogy of That Obscure Object of Desire suggests fairly relaxed notions of nationality and exile. This is a displaced Spaniard’s version of a dilettante Frenchman’s version of Spain, a fact that is reflected in the film by Buñuel’s turning Louÿs’s Spanish central character into a Frenchman, but then having him played by a Spanish actor, and dubbed, for good measure, by a French one.

Buñuel has not lived in Spain since 1936, and has shot only two films and part of a third there since then. The self-parody in That Obscure Object of Desire suggests a reasonably equable view of a past career. In Viridiana a girl lectures an older man on his concern for others—he dips a stick into a water butt and fishes out a bee before it drowns. A young man seduces an older woman, and the camera cuts away brusquely to a cat pouncing on a rat. There is a certain impatience in these images, and they are too clumsy to be thought of as artful symbolism. But they do mean what they seem to mean, and they are not jokes. In the new film, Mathieu tries to buy Concha from her mother, and when the mother asks him if he intends to marry her daughter, we hear a loud, sudden click. A moment later, a servant comes in, and takes a patently rubber mouse out of a trap, muttering words to the effect that this one won’t be running around at night anymore. A few scenes later, in a bar, there is a fly in Mathieu’s drink, and the waiter says he’s pleased they have finally caught it. Both images reflect Mathieu’s pursuit of Concha, obviously, although the mouse in the trap appears also to be a picture of Mathieu’s idea of marriage. But the principal effect is simply comic, an allusion to Viridiana if we remember it, a gag about Buñuel’s mannerisms, or perhaps about the whole question of meaning in the movies, if we don’t.

One of the chief tensions in all Buñuel’s films, part of his legacy from surrealism, is one between the lives people live and the stories they tell; or to put it slightly differently, between the things that happen and the meanings that people ascribe to them. At the heart of surrealism is a flight from meaning, a desire for pure, unarranged chaos. But every gesture we make, every speech, every object we point a finger or a camera at, is already part of a universe of discourse, enrolled in a grammar of associations and exclusions. The surrealists in fact were just as eager to preach as the next lot. Buñuel plays with this problem in all kinds of ways in all kinds of films, and one of the reasons Carole Bouquet is so good in That Obscure Object of Desire is that she joins a whole company of Buñuel enigmas, bids for chaos which wobble back toward meaning. She is not simply another icon of woman-as-mystery.

In spite of the anxiety which kicks up at times from the central theme, That Obscure Object of Desire feels relaxed, I think, because Buñuel here, as in his last two or three films, is less worried, more amused, by the inevitable victory of interpretation over life. Why does a man cross the screen carrying a sack early in this movie? Why does the same man, transplanted from Seville to Paris, appear again carrying what seems to be the same sack? Why does Mathieu show up in one scene carrying this sack? Why does he take it with him when he goes out to dinner? Why does it appear in the window of a shop in a Paris arcade? Does it have anything to do with the sacks of excrement, already mentioned? I don’t think these questions need an answer. What is important is to understand how the possibility of a meaning for this sack spoils its gratuitous presence in the film as an objet trouvé (et retrouvé). The very possibility of a meaning ruins a certain form of freedom, and it is this ruin and this freedom which Buñuel wishes us to understand. He offers neither nostalgia nor wisdom, but an engaging practical example of the art of accepting defeat without learning to expect it.

Accidents in Buñuel, a surrealist manifesto in support of L’Age d’Or said, “remain uncorrupted by plausibility,” which is essentially true. But then this implausibility is itself corrupted by its conversion into a story line. We all love stories, and no one more than Buñuel. Yet stories carry the disease of meaning, and in Buñuel’s recent films the central location of these ruins of freedom has been the narrative of the movies themselves. In Louÿs and Sternberg, Mateo (Pascual) told his story to a young man as a warning against Concha, an attempt to save him from her wiles. The moral was that such warnings always go unheard, since in these matters no one’s experience counts but our own.

In Buñuel’s film, there is no young man to be warned, and Mathieu is telling his story to a group of traveling companions on a train, because they want to know why he has just poured a bucket of water over a young woman’s head. “You will agree that it’s better to soak someone than to kill them,” he says, and then regales them with his yarn—Concha, of course, is the girl he’s just drenched. This is a parody of narrative convention—travelers settling in for a long trip, all French, all neighbors and friends of friends, happy at the prospect of a juicy tale—but it does prop up the narrative of the film. What happens is that the story told and the story in the telling just can’t be thought of together. After Mathieu ends his account of the night of the corset, for example—we have just seen Concha naked in his arms, wearing her gruesome piece of tightly knotted armor—suddenly we are back in the train compartment, watching Mathieu tell his tale. His adult hearers are all agog, and two children stand in the doorway, eager for more. The adults then notice the children and send them away, and Mathieu apologizes, gracefully, modestly. “And yet, I don’t think I said anything improper or indiscreet….”

There is no way in which Mathieu’s evident sincerity can be made to correspond to the story he is recounting. How can he have told it properly, discreetly? The feat is unimaginable, not meant to be imagined. What we are meant to imagine, instead, is a yawning, comic gulf between experience and all renderings of it.

Stories are often a form of explanation, and explanations are among Buñuel’s favorite targets. “There are no accidents in the unconscious,” a dwarf psychologist says in this film, paraphrasing Freud. But all the dwarf is saying is that Mathieu, having lost Concha and sworn he never wanted to see her again, went to Seville because he knew that was where Concha came from. Everyone understood that already, even Mathieu; and the dwarf’s pleased smile at his own expertise (he is a professor of psychology, but without a university post, he says—“I give private lessons”) is a mockery of knowingness.

There are really four explanations for Concha’s repeated incursions into Mathieu’s life. There is a plot—her plot, she herself stages her vanishings and returns. Or there is an obsession—his obsession, he sees her everywhere, and Buñuel, obligingly, makes her appear everywhere; in Lausanne, for example, where Mathieu happens to be; in a bar in Paris where he goes for a drink; in a house he passes in Seville. Or it is all chance—she simply keeps crisscrossing his life, not a conspirator and not a projection, but another person moving about the limited spaces of two or three cities.

Or finally, it is only a movie, and the director is entitled to do what he likes with it. Buñuel doesn’t choose between these explanations, and he doesn’t make any particular effort to combine them—part of his aim, after all, is to cheat interpretation altogether. But it’s clear that he is less interested than Louÿs and Sternberg in making Concha the villainess—when Buñuel’s Concha says she’s not after money, or that she hates what she is doing to Mathieu as much as he does, we believe her, or almost. She says the same things in Louÿs, and is unmistakably lying.

It’s clear that Mathieu’s obsession alone is too psychological a focus for Buñuel, offers too coherent and oppressive a pattern. It’s clear that chance is no explanation at all, and that much as Buñuel would like to find room for a life with real accidents in it, he doesn’t want to fake it if it can’t be had. And it’s clear that while That Obscure Object of Desire is only a movie—what else could it be?—Buñuel would think this was a poor excuse for not trying to tell some sort of truth about human possibility.

We are left, I think, with a film that can’t continue, and can’t end, and can’t go back to where it came from. Having taught us to suspect all explanations, it explains itself, unconvincingly. When Mathieu pours the bucket of water on Concha, the gesture is funny and unforeseen. When she later appears with a bucket of water and pours it on him, we see not only her revenge but also the stealthy return of reliable meaning. Buckets of water make perfect sense if they are part of a ritual, steps in a dance of insult. They, and things like them, can almost be predicted, and all Buñuel’s films finish, or should finish, when they start to look so plausible.

This Issue

February 23, 1978