That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Viewed February 17th

In this late Luis Buñuel film, a bourgeois patriarch pursues a beautiful young woman, only to have the consummation of their relationship continually just out of reach.

A horror film about the end of modern patriarchal culture played as a screwball comedy. In the late 1970s, things were changing. Feminism was upending traditional gender dynamics and leftist/anarchist/post-colonial terrorist cells were busy upsetting the balance of political power that had been consolidated since the aftermath of World War II. Films themselves were going through radical upheavals regarding the way love stories were supposed to be resolved. Although conflict in classic movies was necessary, these older films always resulted in the achievement of the man's fantasy to control the woman, his object of desire. For the aging Mateo, who grew up with certain assumptions about what he was owed and how love stories were supposed to end, the fact that he can't possess the young object of his desire (who's a lowly chambermaid after all!), plus the fact that this failure to fulfill his fantasy is set against the backdrop of a society coming unmoored at the seams, is too much. Besides, he's a nice guy. He's not some caricature of an abusive old asshole, he's affable and we never get the sense that he would treat the young Conchita with anything other than an old man's tenderness. And Conchita (played by two actresses, doubling the sense of psychological imbalance) is no innocent; she's devilishly funny, but she's not really that likeable. She repeatedly intentionally humiliates Mateo, even staging herself making love to a younger, more virile man in front of him, but behind bars so he can't touch her, almost like having to watch a film. This unfairness is played for laughs, but there's also a queasy quality to the whole thing that masterfully butts up against the psychological structures which psychoanalytic theory would tell us are imprinted upon the traditional male mind. One of the film's upsetting jokes along these lines is that most of the story is recounted on a speeding train, that great cinematic metaphor for the raging phallus on the verge of entering the tunnel of its desire. But here of course it never enters that tunnel.