Love in the time of terrorism and bourgeois values

Desire Under Siege

Not long ago you could look and look and look for revivals, and the screen would remain blank. No more. Apocalypse Now Redux pulled in large crowds, and The Wide Blue Road also did well. Re-releases of classics from Fellini, Godard, and Melville are planned for the next couple of months. Now comes another treat: That Obscure Object of Desire, an erotic comedy from Spanish master Luis Buñuel.

First released in 1977, Desire was Buñuel's swan song, the last in a long line of great Spanish- and French-language films. Buñuel's first film, Un Chien Andalou, is a surrealist short that remains a landmark in movie history. But after that triumph at age 28, Buñuel drifted through many career attempts before returning to moviemaking at age 47. He embarked on a prolific career in Mexico and then back in Europe, turning out his best work in his Sixties and Seventies: Belle de Jour, Tristana, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Like those films, Desire focuses on the foibles of the prosperous middle classes. It is a thoroughly entertaining film, whimsical yet provocative -- like a fairy tale for adults.

A dignified businessman, Mathieu Fabert (Fernando Rey), takes a train trip from Seville to Madrid en route to Paris. He settles into his compartment and chats with his seatmates -- a judge, a professor, and a young mother with her daughter. Suddenly Fabert spots a young woman with a bruised face on the station platform. As the train pulls out, he goes to confront her and dumps a bucket of water on her head. When he returns to the train, his startled seatmates, who have witnessed the strange event, can't resist asking what it was all about. So Fabert tells his tale of woe: how he met his new maid -- a young Spanish girl named Conchita who resisted his charms.


That Obscure Object of Desire

Opening at the Absinthe House Cinematheque

The film then follows Fabert's hapless courtship of the charming but elusive Conchita. She quits her job when he tries to kiss her. He finds out where she lives and provides cash and food for her impoverished mother. Conchita becomes fond of Fabert but won't have sex with him, so he tries another strategy. He gives the mother money, asking her help to persuade Conchita to move into his mansion. The ploy works initially, but when he finds she is hiding a male friend in her room, he throws them both out, despite Conchita's protests that her relationship was not an intimate one. Unable to forget her, Fabert again seeks Conchita, a pursuit that ends up in Spain, where she has taken work as a flamenco dancer. When he discovers that she also dances naked for tourists, he demands she stop her work and puts up money to buy her a house. But Conchita thinks Fabert is again trying to buy her and again refuses his romantic overtures.

Rey gives a rich, dimensioned portrayal of the anguished Fabert, a sophisticated man who is used to buying what he wants and is completely bewildered by Conchita's insistence that she cannot be bought at any price. Buñuel gives this standoff many colorations.

Fabert is charming but controlling. His sexual frustrations are funny but increasingly threatening. Conchita's demure denials are sweet but manipulative. She's a tease, a delight, a torment, and a sadist. He's debonair, obsessive, assertive, and masochistic. Buñuel further stirs up this cockeyed, topsy-turvy romance by double-casting the role of Conchita with two very different actresses: Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. It's as if we, like Fabert, can't really get a clear focus on Conchita. Or perhaps she is meant to be so ignored by Fabert that he doesn't even notice when her face and body change from scene to scene.

It must have been rather frustrating for Bouquet and Molina to have to share the same role, but both are excellent in different ways. Bouquet is an ice queen with a slinky model's body and a steely glint in her eye. Molina is curvier and cuddlier. But interestingly Conchita can be seen in both performances and is a more fully realized character because of this innovation. At first the change is gradual, as each actress has a sequence of connected scenes. But as the film progresses, there's a switch from scene to scene and finally from shot to shot.

This disorientation is abetted by Buñuel's depiction of urban terrorism, which serves as a sobering backdrop to this otherwise lighthearted comedy. As Fabert chases Conchita through France and Spain, they narrowly skirt disaster as buildings are bombed, cars are hijacked, and many innocents are killed by a deadly bioterrorist virus.

Buñuel was reflecting the Europe of the late Seventies, which he saw as becoming increasingly blasé about the rising rate of terrorism. But of course the re-release of this film now takes on an unintended resonance in the face of the current world crisis. The director adds to this vertigo with a number of purposefully odd touches. A fly suddenly falls into Faber's martini in the midst of a conversation. He encounters a woman on a street holding a piglet wrapped in a blanket, like a baby. A burlap sack is featured prominently in a number of scenes, and Fabert carries his own from time to time.

What these events mean is entirely in doubt, though perhaps Buñuel means to connect such random oddities with the random terrorist catastrophes that suddenly flare up all around the story. People narrowly escape disaster or don't, careening from one explosion to the next. Some explosions are political, some are romantic, Buñuel seems to be saying. And love is a kind of endless war.


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