That Obscure Object of Desire

I was faced with further evidence of my absent-mindedness when I realised half-way into this film that the female antagonist was being played by two actresses. The device was an unplanned development (cf. my note on Discreet Charm) – Buñuel resorted to the idea after his first choice of actress balked at the sex scene. It works because it underlines the theme of the story, which is the incomprehensibility of the objects we desire. Conchita literally shapeshifts in front of an increasingly irritable Mathieu (played by Fernando Ray and voiced by Michel Piccoli – both Buñuel favourites). She constantly blows hot and cold on his courtship, to the point where the film starts flirting with misogyny.

It avoids it partly because of the word 'object' in the title, and that aforementioned sex scene. When Conchita finally gets the keys to her own house, she locks Mathieu out of it. And to prove that she is an independent woman who has simply used her objectification against her oppressor, she makes love to her handsome boyfriend on the floor in front of Mathieu's eyes. He tries to walk away, but he can't resist coming back to gaze on his desire. Not to get too David Thomson, but if there is a reason this film is in his top three, it's because of this scene – an encapsulation of how the moving image has been harnessed to project our desires back at us, so that we look on, spellbound.

Conchita flits between such statements of her independence and professions of devotion to Mattieu. She even finds an explanation for this final outrage against Mathieu's pride (it was a test of his constancy, apparently). She's either a mad lover or a manipulative witch. Either way, we can't get rid of her. And would we really want to?

This little romcom is played out against a background of increasingly violent terrorist attacks. Like in Discreet Charm, there's the suggestion that the quotidian complications of bourgeois life paper over the cracks of class warfare. Jean-Claude Carrière (Buñuel's co-writer on most of his last films) says Buñuel was increasingly paranoid about a collapse in civility. He predicted that even family relations will become mediated by terrorism – siblings bickering with bombs rather than words. Buñuel is known for being a scourge of bourgeois pieties, but I wonder if in this film he goes some way towards repudiating his earlier, revolutionary self, and making peace with the hypocrisies of his class. That last shot of a woman mending the fabric of a blood-splattered dress seems to suggest so.



Jean Rollin made low-budget exploitation films invariably featuring alluring female vampires writhing their way into the lives of unsuspecting male protagonists. Sounds like trash, but they are sought after, partly because Rollin imbibed the methodology of the surrealists and did care quite a bit about the images he was putting together. Fascination opens on a gramophone on a stone bridge, the shot slowly moving out to show two women dancing alongside it. That visual was what sparked the idea for the film, and Rollin liked it so much he held the shot for the whole of the opening credits, to the point where it becomes a bit tedious. It gets better from there though. Some of his long takes build mood marvelously well – most notably the shot revealing the coven of bloodthirsty mademoiselles to the cocksure thief Mark, fanning out like bat wings behind their leader Helen.

Mark is a lovable rascal who refuses to be blindsided or intimidated by the mysterious aristocratic ladies he falls in with. Helen's uppity attitude riles him up – he always wants to be in control. The prototypical link between sex and death inherent in the vampire myth is ever-present in the film. Fascination, bewitchment, is a mortal threat. But this is true also for the vampires themselves. One of them, Elizabeth, falls in love with Mark, and kills her lover Eva to be with him. But the aura of Helen draws her back to the coven. Elizabeth's motives are shambolic, and it's probably best not to try too hard to reconcile them. Throughout, Rollin is more interested in the way these images of beautiful, domineering women can entrap even the most free-spirited soul.


Although it's much loved by people like Grant Morrison and Kieron Gillen, I found Enigma a bit underwhelming when I finally got around to reading it. It's grouped alongside Watchmen as a superhero deconstruction job, but whereas Alan Moore was channeling Nietzsche to destabilise the ethical certainties underpinning the genre, Milligan takes an existentialist approach. The Enigma's all-powerful consciousness develops in a universe he finds absurd and meaningless. His response is to meet absurdity with absurdity, girding his environment with the plot structures gleaned from an obscure, hastily written superhero comic. But the plan backfires – the violence he unleashes fuels a supervillain that he will be unable to defeat. He has to change tack, writing over the mind of a regular shmoe called Michael Smith to make him love a real person as much as he loved superheroes as a child. Milligan ends the book before the final showdown, so we don't know whether the ploy succeeds. Instead the focus is on the act of narration itself, and indirectly on the role of culture in shaping our (moral) selves – if only we'd listen.

But actually, the most powerful development in the book is Michael's abandonment of a 'straight' – in every sense of the word – existence. The fact of his favourite superhero stepping out into the real world triggers a wholesale collapse in the parameters that have governed his life. Michael leaves his job, girlfriend and city. The Enigma transforms his sexuality. The most powerful moment in the book is when he is given the option of going back – of becoming a straight, regular ol' member of society again. And he doesn't capitulate: "It doesn't matter how or why I had those experiences, whether it was something within me or you changing me... This is how I am now. And I like myself this way."

This rather lovely interview with the creators highlights the loose feel of the book. The artist was learning on the job, and some of the early issues are extremely scratchy and impressionistic. Milligan also seems to be winging it – I wouldn't be surprised if the idea for the twist at the end only occurred to him mid-way through the series.* Rather than wanting more structure, I almost wished there were less. My fave Millian piece is probably Screemer, a comic that gets close to Bulletproof Coffin-levels of inscrutability. That vertigo-inducing (pun-intended) fall into the strange is tempered here by the need to comply with the strictures of the superhero genre.

* Rather embarrassingly, this blog was tweeted at the creators by a book group as a "review", and Milligan has made clear that this was not in fact the case: "no payoffs were made up half way through". Apologies for my suggestion to the contrary – I made it because the idea that the narrator was somehow embedded in the story is introduced half way through. In any case, it wasn't intended as a slur – I liked the loose feel of the book.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The germ from which the film developed was Buñuel's interest in repetition as an aid to memory – his frequent writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière links this to the fact that a member of Buñuel's family suffered from dementia. This morphed into the idea of having dinner party plans be constantly upset by surreal and ridiculous intrusions. The title was thought up after the script was finished, with the aim to give a new perspective on the film.

This background reveals that the final version of Discreet Charm is rather removed from where Buñuel started. Appropriate, perhaps, given his surrealist credentials. His motives may not have been more sophisticated than to provoke some gentle (but never judgmental) laughter at the expense of the French upper crust. Some of the scenarios are quite funny, but there's something else going on here.

First the dreams: of detectives, mafiosi, terrorists, deathbeds and ghosts. The power of the army, the police, and the political class are always lurking under the surface of these polite dinners. Fernando Ray is an ambassador of a made-up Latin American banana republic, and he's always paranoid that his corruption will be exposed. At one point the group sit down to dinner only to have a curtain lift and reveal them all to a theatre audience, who start jeering when they can't recite their lines. Soldiers and policemen keep reciting dreams of torture and murder as ladies sit down to eat, cutting through the small talk with tales of horror and loss. In all these scenarios, the pressure to remain charming and discreet is a source of deep seated anxiety.

And then there's the framing device. The opening credits sequence is composed of shots looking out of a car as it drives through the night – only occasionally are features of the road and streets illuminated by the headlights. The characters have chauffeured cars driving them around throughout the film, it's one of the signs of their privilege. The ending sequence (which also appears twice during the film) is of the six characters walking down a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere and in bright daylight. Perhaps this is a levelling measure. Rather than locked away from the world and meandering in the darkness of their own closed society, Buñuel finally allows his troupe a breath of fresh air, and a dose of real experience.

It can be read in lots of ways. Perhaps it was also arrived at by accident.


"Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and a period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are neither 'bad' nor 'good', as many moral critiques or defences of capitalism assume. Humans are not just dupes pre-programmed by genetics to conquer and destroy. Following chaos or trauma such as any major war, people do work together to solve problems collectively and generate new social and economic relations." - J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era


The Master

After the awesome power of There Will Be Blood, David Thomson confessed himself disappointed by its follow up. The Master is a more austere and elliptical film, but the interest in the historical roots and conflicts of American identity remains. The clue is in the title, and the final exchange between Philip Seymour Hoffman's grandiloquent cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix's broken, drunk army vet. The all-American ideal of the open road and boundless freedom is brought down to earth in Phoenix's alcoholic and unstable drifter. His father is dead, his mother mentally ill, he has no support network. And in that gap steps in a charlatan with a compulsive need for attention and people to command. Hoffman demands compete devotion, and Phoenix – in his one moment of nobility – declines the offer. Salvation, like in many other Paul Thomas Anderson films, can be found in romantic love, although here the opportunity is fleeting. The film ends with Phoenix in England hooking up with a girl called Winn Manchester. Phoenix's character is from Lynn, Massachusetts – suggesting a semblance of home is reached, although Hoffman's influence remains indelible. The final shot of the film is of Phoenix lying next to a woman made of sand – that brief moment of comfort likely to crumble, and be washed away.


House of Cards

The 1990 BBC version, that is. Was spurred to watch it by the boys at Kraken, who were rather taken with how deliciously evil the protagonist is. It wouldn't be fair to tar all Tories with the Urquhart brush, however (as their question cheekily suggests). The man is clearly a caricature from the moment he puts on a fake mustache (although the boldness of Mattie's murder at the end did catch me unawares). The show succeeds in spite of the silly stuff. Some of the shenanigans, particularly the way leaks and briefings to the press are used in internal party struggles, ring true. With Corbyn having to pick his way through a nest of vipers in the Parliamentary Labour Party, we may be seeing more such behaviour in the coming months...

Mattie's conspiracies are unbelievable because her editor is right (in the real world, if not in the world of the TV series) – politics isn't as exciting as sex, drugs and murder. Most of the time it's about pale old men struggling to unpick Gordian Knots of policy in a way they can advertise to their constituents and the party leadership. Urquhart's skulduggery would not work now, and I doubt it would have worked in 1990 either.

Urquhart is a pure Machiavel. The deputy editor of the Chronicle describes him as a politician without politics – appealing because of his character rather than his policies. He is all things to all men – able to shapeshift as circumstances dictate. He is the embodiment of Machiavelli's virtuoso, bending to the winds of fortune as he navigates towards his goals. The audacity with which he weaves his plots, and the way he co-ops the audience to root for him, is proof of Machiavelli's perception that there is glory to be found in cruelty and fear.
"Economists inhabit a rather chilling world in which people act only on their rational self-interest. Fortunately, our actual world is often more generous-spirited – hence mutual regard – but the implications of brute rational self-interest cannot be lightly dismissed" - Paul Collier explaining 'moral hazard' in Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century



And it was all just a dream... But was it? I haven't read the book so don't sue me if I get this wrong BUT I lean towards the dream-filled interpretation. Partly because the balance of evidence tends to point that way (the jump cuts, the recurring scenes and dialogue, all the stuff Aoyama can't know about Asami). But also because the film would be richer as a result. If the torture is all real, all we have is a version of the rape-revenge film – a favourite ploy of pulp directors to have and eat their feminist cake. Tarantino loves doing this, and loves this film as well, apparently. But what if it was something more? What if it was about the pulp director's guilt about his use of women as objects? What if he turns the rape-revenge onto himself?

Aoyama feels guilt first and foremost because in trying to find a girlfriend he is betraying the memory of his dead wife. But his fantasies about Asami highlight a deeper uneasiness at his behaviour towards the other women in his life. The housekeeper who praises him for raising a son by himself, even though he's actually rich enough to employ her to help out. His son's prospective girlfriend, who is sexually objectified by him. The secretary he foolishly slept with and does his best to ignore, even though she still pines for him. He is perfectly civil to all of these women, and he is also nothing if not a devoted father. The horror is made all the more acute because he is such a sympathetic character.

But there's the business with the audition. The conceit cleverly underlines the omnipresence of male domination in the film, and Japanese society. How many job interviews with powerful middle-aged men are really tests of marriageability? Aoyama remains super uncomfortable and quite sweet throughout the process. The real monster in the film is his film producer friend Yoshikawa, who organises the whole rigmarole. But Aoyama is complicit in the con trick. The measure of the man is how he checks his privilege, brutally, in his dreams.

And the twist at the end is all the more succulent. Aoyama awakes from an unforgettable nightmare next to a docile Asami, who he has promised to wed even though he now feels horror at the thought. Will he go back on his word? Will Asami be cast away, as the secretary was?