That Obscure Object of Desire – Luis Buñuel and the universality of desire.

In his essay The Object of Desire and the Totality of the Real, Georges Bataille speaks to the unrelenting nature of passion and its precarious relationship to the intellect. 

In reality, what fascinates in this way speaks to passion but has nothing to say to the intellect. Thus it appears, in many cases, that the latter is less lucid than a simpler reaction. In point of fact, the intellect cannot justify the power of passion, and yet it naively considers itself obliged to deny that power. But in choosing to hear of other reasons but its own, the intellect errs; for it can go into the reasons of the heart if it so chooses, provided it does not insist on reducing them first to the calculation of reason. Once it has made this concession it can define a domain in which it is no longer the sole rule of conduct: it does so if it speaks of the sacred, of what surpasses it by nature. The most remarkable thing is that it is quite capable of speaking of what surpasses it; indeed, it cannot conceive that it might finally be able to justify itself without abandoning its own calculation.

 

It is impossible to watch this film without thinking that the very brilliant Luis Buñuel sourced this very essay for his remarkable film, That Obscure Object of Desire. So far, I think it has to be my favorite Buñuel film (can I take that back right away?) because of its delicacy and it’s display of absolute perfection in what it is intending to say, what it may be intending to say, and a culmination of the film career of a remarkable director. After this film Luis Buñuel retired. He made That Obscure Object of desire in 1977 and in 1983 he died.

Buñuel is a surrealist, but what I love about his later works is the way he infused the philosophical principles of surrealism into his work, as well as using his famous visual techniques to take us into alternate realities. All the same Bunuel rules apply here. We have the dusted muted colours, the almost cartoonish quality, a dwarf, and to display the complete incomprehension of the male over his object of desire, he has two completely different actresses (who look different and behave different) portray his love interest, as each fumbles their way through a perverse love affair that is really a battle for the control of the self.

The two Conchitas

For a brief run down of the films synopsis, I’ll refer to the Strictly Film School website.  I like their sparse read on this film, mostly because they keep interpretation to a minimum and I want us to consider the Bataille essay.

The opening sequence of That Obscure Object of Desire has come to define the surreal, sardonic humor of the great director, Luis Buñuel. Before leaving for his trip, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy middle-aged businessman, methodically orders his valet to burn everything in the room that is associated with a certain woman. On his way to the train station, he is caught in traffic after a terrorist bomb explodes in a diplomat’s car. From the train, he spots a beautiful young woman named Conchita (Carole Bouquet/Angela Molina), and proceeds to dowse her with a bucket of water. He returns to his cabin to the aghast of the other passengers, one of whom is a dwarf psychology professor. He justifies his seeming misogyny by attempting to explain their curious relationship. Drawing from a subject to which the director has dedicated much of his film career, That Obscure Object of Desire is a farcical examination on the puzzle of sexual politics. Buñuel appropriately structures the film in thematic cycles to symbolize Mathieu’s confusion. Their relationship is depicted in a series of breakups and reconciliations. There is a constant threat of terrorist activity, punctuated by explosions at the beginning and end of the film. More importantly, two women interchangeably portray the elusive Conchita, symbolizing the complexity of her character, and Mathieu does not seem to notice the difference. Figuratively, he does not understand Conchita, and therefore, cannot possess her completely. All of his attempts to win her: through kindness, money, gifts, even brute force, are his perception of her needs, and is confounded by her rejection. She is the obscure object of desire, enigmatic and unattainable. The final scene shows the reconciled couple arguing, behind the silence of a lace shop window…and so the battle wages on – a testament to the eternal mystery of sexual psychology.

If we take the Bataille essay into consideration, the film becomes (I think) much more interesting. For a start, you can see each of the characters as struggling with their desire. Neither can name it properly.  The film is shown to us through the eyes of Mathieu, therefore we assume Conchita to be the object (also she is female and young so it fits with our social constructs of desire) however, Mathieu is also treated perpetually as an object. Although we have no idea of what Conchita gets up to behind Mathieu’s back, we do know that she is always glad to see him and always ready to take up with him again. We believe Conchita when she claims she doesn’t want money, because she genuinely does escape his offer to set her (and her rather odd prudish mother)  up for life. When Mathieu hits Conchita, she wipes the blood off her face, looks at it, smiles and claims at last she believes he loves her. Conchita claims that she wants to be free.  What she is running from is every claim to power over her that Mathieu tries to exert.

Mathieu fits very conventionally into Batialles essay.  He is at perpetual conflict between his desire and his intellect. Every attempt he makes to control Conchita, is an attempt to control his own desire. When the scenario is played out for the audience that Mathieu insists on perpetually creating for himself, he is still trying to control his desire by using rational conversation to imply logic and his “respect for love” are uppermost in his mind.

 

The intellect fails, in fact, in that with its first impulse it abstracts, separating the objects of reflection from the concrete totality of the real. It constructs, under the name of science, a world of abstract science, copied from the things of the profane world, a partial world dominated by utility. Nothing is stranger, once we have surpassed it, than this world of the intellect where each thing must answer the question “what is the use of that?”  (from The Object of Desire is the Universe, or the Totality of Being)

IN fact, that is the central question of this delightful film. What is the use of it?  What is the use of desire? The entire film is a construct of Mathieu’s appeal to those around him to see it from his intellectual perspective. he will even tell children his tale of woe, strangers on a train, anyone who will listen as he tries to conquer his desire with his intellect. In the rational world, an object must have a use. A reason for being if you like. I get up, I work to till my soil so that I have food, I go home and I eat the food and tomorrow I wake again. Beyond the labour is the possibility of making too much food, selling it, and having money to buy other things to improve my quality of life. Nowhere do we find a totality that is an end in itself, that is meaningful as such, that doesn’t need to justify itself by pleading its usefulness for some other thing. We escape this empty and sterile movement, this sum of objects and abstract functions that is the world of the intellect, only by entering a very different world where objects are on the same plane as the subject, where they form, together with the subject, a sovereign totality which is not divided by any abstraction and is commensurate with the entire universe.

 

For Bataille, and I would argue Bunuel, there is no finer way to describe the possibility of these radical two worlds existing together, than in the erotic, where the object is rarely different in nature from the subject.

The object of sensual desire is by nature another desire. The desire of the senses is the desire, if not to destroy oneself, at least to be consumed and to lose oneself without reservation. Now, the object of my desire does not truly respond to it except on one condition: that I awaken in it a desire equal to mine. Love in its essence is so clearly the coincidence of two desires that there is nothing more meaningful in love, even in the purest love. But the other’s desire is desirable insofar as it is not known as a profane object is, from the outside (as an analyzed substance is known in a laboratory). The two desires fully respond to one another only when perceived in the transparence of an intimate comprehension. (The Object of Desire is the Universe, or the Totality of Being)

Let me repeat that

The two desires fully respond to one another only when perceived in the transparence of an intimate comprehension.

 

And this is the problem for them isn’t it?  They don’t have any intimate comprehension of each other or of the desire of the other. This is brought to the fore brilliantly by Bunuel when he casts two women who do not simply look completely different, but act completely different in the role of Conchita. She is a complete mystery to Mathieu who merely wants to control his desire, not let exists and indulge in it. she is so much of a mystery, that is occurs as two completely different women.

Similarly, Conchita plays or does not play, at being perpetually perplexed by Mathieu.  She keeps saying, ‘but you have me, you have me.’ She makes it clear she does not want to be dominated, controlled. For Conchita, Mathieu’s behaviors are incomprehensible.  It’s as if she is standing before him beating her chest, screaming, I am here. See me, feel me, touch me. She can’t get through to him. She can’t get him to simply experience his desire.

Of course, a deep repulsion underlies this comprehension: without repulsion the desire would not be boundless, as it is when it does not give way to repulsion. If it were not so great, would it have that convincing force of the lover answering her lover, in darkness and silence, that nothing, absolutely nothing separates them now?

But it doesn’t matter: now the object is no longer anything but that immense and anguished desire for the other desire. Of course, the object is first known by the subject as other, as different from it, but at the moment it reduces itself to desire, the object, in a tremor that is no less anguished, is not distinct from it: the two desires meet, intermingle and merge into one. Without doubt, the intellect remains behind and, looking at things from the outside, distinguishes two solitary desires that are basically ignorant of one another. We only know our own sensations, not those of the other. Let us say that the distinction of the intellect is so clearly contrary to the operation that it would paralyze the latter’s movement if it were compelled to fade from awareness. But the intellect is not wrong merely because the illusion denounced is efficacious, because it works and no purpose would be served by depriving the deluded partners of their contentment. It is wrong in that this is not an illusion. (The Object of Desire is the Universe, or the Totality of Being)

And so Mathieu and Conchita are left floundering in their attempts to reconcile their own desire and that of the incomprehensible other. In watching this delightful film – so much philosophy wrapped up in a very very funny comedy – that in the embrace of the object of desire is always the totality of being, just as it is the object of religion or art. In a word, the object of desire is the universe, in the form of he/she who in the embrace is its mirror, where we ourselves are reflected. At the most intense moment of fusion, the pure blaze of light, like a sudden flash, illuminates the immense field of possibility, on which these lovers are subtilized, annihilated, submissive in their excitement to a rarefaction which they desired.

Grab this film with both hands as fast as you can.

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