Criterion Sunday 143: Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977)

In the long pre-history to this blog, I’ve already written about this film after seeing it on the big screen back in 2007, and even posted it here. Revisiting it again for this project, I am reminded that I find Buñuel’s style, especially in these later French films, both beguiling and maddening in equal measure: short scenes, people wandering into and out of rooms, little attempt to always make any narrative connections or explicate “meaning”. That, plus the very 70s ways of working through issues of desire — by which I mean not just a certain normalisation of elderly male attention to young women, but casual domestic violence. Of course, Mathieu is hardly intended to be sympathetic — part of the ‘comedy’ is that Mathieu’s calm explanations to his fellow train passengers (the film is largely told by him in flashback) of how he’s in the right are undercut by what we see of his behaviour — and the terrorist conflagrations which periodically engulf the film (and which consume it ultimately) seem to be a sort of wilful erasure of Mathieu’s aggressive desires. Still, Conchita never comes across as much more than a surface onto which Mathieu’s confused desires are projected, though casting two actors in the role (the aloof Carole Bouquet and more sensuous Ángela Molina) does come across as something of a masterful stroke (however it was intended by Buñuel).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (inspired by the novel La Femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs); Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Fernando Rey, Ángela Molina, Carole Bouquet; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Wednesday 28 February 2007 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 12 February 2017).

Blancanieves (2012)

Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.

Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.

If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.

The gorgeous contrasty black-and-white photography emphasises faces — extreme close-ups in a nod to old Soviet silents — though with a slightly more emphatic montage style than you’d see even in those films, belying its minimal budget. However, the faces glow with that peculiar radiance that silent films have always imparted at their best. Divorced from the prosaic limitations of the voice, we have the soulful eyes of both the heroine Carmen (played as an adult by Macarena García and by Sofía Oria as a child) — who with her cropped hair at times recalls even Renée Falconetti’s suffering as Joan of Arc — and the evil stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú, every bit the campy stage villain). In fact, this is a film of uncommonly strong women: there’s also a role for veteran actress Ángela Molina as Carmen’s flamenco-dancing grandmother. The men in the film are no match for these women, being either literally smaller (the dwarfs who take Carmen in when she’s been forsaken by her stepmother) or symbolically so (her wheelchair-bound father, the former torero Antonio, who is effectively imprisoned by Encarna upon the death of his first wife, Carmen’s mother).

For a country which gave us the word “macho”, it is perhaps not surprising that strong women have been a feature of many classic Spanish films, as have young girls who are exposed to the allegorical horrors of a patriarchal world, which is the most pertinent point of comparison — whether the poetic rural fantasies of El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) or El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) more recently. In this case it’s bullfighting which is at the symbolic heart of the tale: Carmen’s attempted mastery over a bull in the stadium where her father was gored, and where her mother died giving birth to her, is what the film’s narrative is working towards. However, it hardly seems accidental that this most clichéd of Spanish pursuits should be emphasised, given we also see plenty of flamenco dancing — both being entrenched traditional arts renewed with nationalist fervour by the Francoist regime. Given that horror at Franco’s Spain is very much at the forefront of both the films I mentioned above, I suspect the inclusion of these art forms is more than mere window-dressing to make the film marketable to an international audience. The nostalgia inherent in the silent form is politicised by these allusions to the later fascist regime; Blancanieves does not present the comfortable past of the heritage film, whatever its silver-screen trappings might be.

I think that’s the key for me, that this isn’t some comfortable exercise in Roaring Twenties nostalgia, but a way of using the form in such a way as to undermine viewer assumptions. The resulting fairytale is thus returned to its complex psychological roots, and with Spain’s traumatic 20th century history still menacingly in the future, we are left uncertain as to whether ‘Snow White’ even should awake from her sleep. Thus does the film’s conclusion feel exactly right.

Blancanieves film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm); Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica; Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013.

Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films.

ARCHIVAL FILM REVIEW: French Film Week || Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (inspired by the novel La Femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs) | Cinematographer Edmond Richard | Starring Fernando Rey, Ángela Molina, Carole Bouquet | Length 99 minutes | Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Wednesday 28 February 2007 | Originally posted on 1 March 2007 (with slight amendments) || My Rating 3 stars good

© First Artists

One of the lovely things about the NFT is that it produces film notes for every film it screens. I have quite a file of these now, and I can only imagine what the NFT’s archives are like. However, putting a spoiler warning at the top of them just seems a bit condescending to me. In any case, I hardly think a work by so astute or experienced a director as Luis Buñuel can ever really be ‘spoiled’ by mere narrative clues, just as it can’t really be summed up by them. Much of the pleasure is not in what happens (an older man falls in love with a younger woman, who leads him on while resisting his baser desires) as in the wit and flair with which it is expressed.

Here, Fernando Rey (so wonderful as the ambassador in Buñuel’s earlier The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [1972] amongst many other works) is the older man lusting after Conchita, played interchangably by the willowy and cold Carole Bouquet, and the lusty and vibrant Ángela Molina. The whole scenario is an extended apologia for some misogynistic behaviour — Rey’s character Mathieu pours a bucket of water over the battered Conchita to the amazement of his fellow train passengers, then narrates a story which, he assures them, proves that he was in the right. However, at the same time as making Mathieu the central character, Buñuel undercuts all his calm protestations of innocence in flashbacks where Mathieu is a leering casanova, who goes so far as to bribe Conchita’s mother to procure her for his advances.

It adds up to a consistently amusing film filled with recurring surreal touches and motifs, shot plainly, the last film of one of cinema’s great directors.