That Scrambled Object of Desire

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Back in the late nineties, going through the Criterion rack one weekend at a local video store, I decided to try something new for me – a Buñuel film. That Obscure Object of Desire is framed by Mathieu (Fernando Rey) recounting, for his neighbors on the train, his history with a bruised-faced young woman on whom he had just dumped water as she chased him along the platform.  Conchita has a history of teasing him, making promises and then changing her mind. This drives him mad (in all ways you might guess) and his shallow reaction to Conchita, in turn, leads to her revenge and his humiliation.  He responds by blacking her eyes and bloodying her face. Then characters start dumping buckets like the end of an NFL game.

Tears even come for Mathieu about halfway through the film when Conchita, having agreed to become his mistress, arrives in bed wearing an elaborate chastity girdle.  The knots and cords and strings are impenetrable and cause much hair-rending and teeth-gnashing on the part of Mathieu.  Watching this, it hit me like my teenage years jumping me from behind– more than twenty years earlier, I, as an adolescent, had tried to watch this film dubbed and scrambled on Showtime.

Growing up as I did, in a house in Upper East Tennessee that was lucky to have cable at all, scrambled nudity and cinema sex was an unexpected present, one that I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with. I would wait for my father to wake up in his chair and groggily announce he was going to bed.  Then I could experiment with the picture.

For those who’ve been exposed only to digital cable: encrypted analog or scrambled cable images are wrung like wet socks and stretched across the screen, displaying an elastic pull and snap-back. The image turns just as soon as you think you have your bearings and my specious teenage observation that more motion on screen only de-stabilized the image made my hunt for cinema sex that more frustrating.  I sometimes had success tuning the station far to one end of the channel, finding a grainy, soundless, often negative image that only used about 2/3 of the screen.  With this method, I could often spot bare breasts – often a precursor and a sign that I needed to tune back quickly to an image with sound, even though I’d turned the volume down to almost nothing to avoid tipping off my parents.

Looking back, I’m disappointed that, at the time, I found USA Network’s “New Wave Theatre” too creepy to watch instead of late-night scrambled Showtime, but who could blame me?  Secrets. The Emmanuelle franchise. Anything with “Casanova” or “Lady Chatterly” in the title. Carnal Knowledge. I thought this European “Desire” film with its unknown-to-me foreign stars and late-night scheduling was scrambled gold.  In hindsight, my adolescent hopes are both funny and a little sad:

1 – Buñuel didn’t film what I think of as sex.  Sex drives his films, especially something like Belle du Jour, but the act itself, off-putting to him as it reportedly was, isn’t shown, at least not that I’ve seen since I don’t include sucking a statue’s toes in my defintion of sex.  There is nudity (legend has it that, of all people, Maria Schneider of Last Tango in Paris left the film due to the amount of nudity, leaving Buñuel to consider the casting of two actresses), but that nudity itself was not much of a reward for the effort of trying to watch an image pulled like taffy across the television screen – there’s little difference between the image of a door knob and a nipple at that point.

2 – Even if there were sex on screen, the scrambled interchangeable actresses only made it more confusing and harder to find. Conchita is played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina throughout the film – there are theories and stories on why the actresses appear in their respective scenes but I’m reluctant to assume Buñuel had any specific intention apart from hiding any lack of flamenco skills on Carole Bouquet’s part.

Contrary to my reasons for watching the film in the first place, dialogue and narrative were necessary in trying to interpret the distorted image on screen. Nipple or door knob? Is that sex or an old man smacking around a beautiful young flamenco dancer in anger?  Conchita’s voice and hair changed back and forth constantly and disoriented me – years later, I still wouldn’t even be aware that the Bond Girl that floored me in For Your Eyes Only was the same topless woman sporting the impenetrable girdle and driving Mathieu to tears.

3 – Nobody wants to see Fernando Rey fucking.

So a film about sexual frustration with a taste of surrealism amplified through its scrambling was viewed by a profoundly frustrated adolescent whose understanding of all things related to the film was itself obscured. I also stopped trusting European late night movie titles until I paid for premium cable.  I gained an accidental but useful insight into Buñuel, not through reason but something else – a 20-year stretch of movie blue balls.

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Rumpus original art Jason Novak.


Whit Coppedge lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. More from this author →