Sex Scenes: Luis Buñuel and the Supportive Sex Worker Boyfriend
In “That Obscure Object of Desire,” sugar daddy Matthieu is confused by the unpredictable affections of his lover, Conchita. But the simplest explanation is often the right one: she has a boyfriend, and Matthieu is just an annoying client.
Aug 1 2018, 8:53pm
Angela Molina in That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977. Image via the Everett Collection.
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In his 1977 surrealist “comedy-drama,” That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel narrates the story of an aging prosecutor-turned-sugar daddy, Matthieu, who chases after a much younger chambermaid and dancer named Conchita. The title evokes Freudism, offering a reprise of the psychoanalyst’s question: “what do women want?”—a question that inspired an era of mystification of female sexuality, in which women are volatile, cruel, and perpetually unsatisfied.
The events of the film are seen through the eyes of Matthieu, who narrates his bewildering “love story” to a group of enrapt strangers on a train: Conchita is hired as his chambermaid but quits at the end of her first day after Matthieu invites her to his bedroom for a drink; he then tracks her down and begins to seduce her, offering cash for her affections. The role of Conchita is played by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, who look nothing alike. They swap places throughout the film, sometimes even during a single scene. This trick lends the film its surreal quality and magnifies its protagonist’s confusion about Conchita’s double life: she both runs away and chases Matthieu, her promises are seldom kept, and she can, for no apparent reason, turn from incredibly generosity and suddenly cruelty. She’s a “virgin,” but also a stripper. Why can’t he get a proper read on her?
The movie reaches its climax with a sexy anti-sex scene. Matthieu has finally given Conchita more than the usual cash, “gifting” her a house—but when he comes over, thinking they will fuck in the new bed, she won’t unlock the front gate. She laughs—“Don’t you see how happy I am?”—as she does a little dance in the garden. “I am free of you! Free forever.” He shakes the gate angrily and she goes on in a fit of giggles. “You disgust me,” she says. ”When you touch my skin, I feel like vomiting—get it?”
But he demands to be let in, as well as an explanation (as if the one he had just received wasn’t clear enough). Conchita calls into the house and her friend, a slinky, long-haired guitar player, emerges. “See? This is the man I love,” she says. “Isn’t he beautiful? And he’s young.” She gestures for her partner to lay down a blanket then pulls her dress off and mounts him, in front of Mathieu. He watches for a moment, transfixed, then leaves.
It’s a triumph for those viewers who apprehend Conchita’s suffering, who see the forced smiles and stiff body language as she tries to maintain her upbeat and engaged sugar baby persona until she grows tired of his constant boundary-pushing (which devolves into stalking). She’s stuck in a cycle of gratitude for the money, revulsion with his actions, and performative repression. To be a sex worker is to simultaneously tackle the burden of intimate emotional labor while affecting the cheerful consent of a service worker and the energy of a party host, all while appearing to not be on the job. The sex worker is a figure that is often mythicized, but the work is not unlike that of the kept housewife, since sex workers share with the them the stigma of appearing—to the client or husband, and to the public—to do no work whatsoever.
Buñuel’s film is an attack on how such baroque theories of desire contort it into something infinitely sophisticated and complex to hide the fact that it is not there.
While on the clock, there is no time for the luxury of an interiority that isn’t simply reactive, caught up in the complicated dance of the other’s fantasy. It’s this repression of the self that seems to disturb Conchita the most in her transactional relationship—her work—with Matthieu. But sex workers know that there is an upside, albeit a possibly dangerous one, to this self-erasure: the more a client is involved with the fantasy, the more they think they are in love with “you,” the more money you can make; there is potential for danger because these kinds of clients must be entitled, delusional, and immature to not understand the situation.
With the sex scene in the locked garden, that Freudian idea of women as a mystery falls apart. Here, Buñuel suggests that “what women want” is a mystery to middle-age men (like Freud) simply because they can’t comprehend that women don’t want them. Buñuel’s film is an attack on how such baroque theories of desire contort it into something infinitely sophisticated and complex to hide the fact that it is not there.
Critics of the film get caught in these convolutions, often taking at face value Mathieu’s narration to explain Conchita’s mercurial infatuation, just to avoid the reality that Conchita does not feel any passion for Mathieu—that she is a sex worker who is annoyed by her client, and that she also has a boyfriend. When the film debuted, The New York Times called it an “upside down romance,” and it is—but the driving romance is not between Conchita and the protagonist, like the critic suggested, but the relationship she has with her lover, her supportive sex work boyfriend who is so barely noticed by the narrator that he is credited simply as El Morenito (the brunette).
The supportive sex work boyfriend is downplayed, erased, distorted in the film just as in real life. Too often, the sex worker isn’t seen as a whole person capable of loving and being loved— when in reality it’s often the entitled rich white men who value money over all who are likely to die without knowing what it is to be loved. These clients (or anyone who isn’t critical of patriarchal relationship structures) write off the supportive sex work boyfriend because they can’t conceive a partner would “be OK” with the line of work, let alone be supportive. Sex work is dismissed as an experiment, a joyful indulgence, rather than the calculated decision made by someone trying to navigate economic injustice and power imbalances.
In fact, Matthieu met Conchita’s boyfriend several times before the scene in the locked garden, when his role became laughably impossible to ignore. These earlier meetings include one in which Conchita sneaks her lover into Matthieu's country house, where she secretly falls asleep with him in the guest room; when Matthieu discovers that Conchita works as a nude dancer for tourists, he spots her boyfriend playing backup guitar. (Not only does he support her, he tours with her!)
The day after Matthieu finally sees Conchita’s partner for who he is, Conchita grows anxious and returns to Matthieu’s mansion to explain. It was a gay friend, posing as a boyfriend, she tells him—they staged the scene. She was simply testing him. This is an afternote that Buñuel leaves vague and that many critics seem, just like Matthieu, to accept, reading the film as a romance. But if sex work is the world’s oldest profession, the “poet and the prostitute” is its oldest legend. The gay friend is a necessary lie that sex workers have memorized backwards and forwards: a male domestic partner is a “roommate,” the partner one can’t help but talk about becomes feminized, “my girlfriend,” regardless of their gender identity. In the film, it doesn’t matter whether Conchita’s partner is her lover or her gay companion—what matters is that he is who she wants to spend her nights with.
For many sex work is the best (and sometimes only) option for financial independence and upward mobility. I wonder if Conchita found a certain wild freedom in working as a stripper, in the realization that she was finally being paid for what she had been, as a woman, groomed to do: seek male validation. For women who previously thought the only option for a comfortable, or simply liveable, life was “marrying up,” the ability to use the system against itself and finally be paid for the labor of desirability can be a way to find real love—a love outside of economics.
To be with a partner of your choosing, without considering how much money they make, is thrilling for those of us who quickly discovered that “marrying for love” might not actually be a possibility. To be able to not only survive, but thrive, with someone to whom not money, but passion and art, ties you is precious. To be with someone who finds this equally touching, who would never denigrate your work but is grateful that sex work helps support the relationship can be the first step in finding a love that is resplendent, lucky, and exceptional.
But no matter what you choose, economics are impossible to separate from life and love under capitalism. All love is tainted by capitalism; you can decide to fall in love for money just like people decide to fall in love with a job. Perhaps this is what is going through Conchita’s mind as she returns to Matthieu after the scene in the garden, shaken, trying to convince him that it was all a ploy, swearing that she wants to be together, only to be beaten by him in return. As every client is so happy to claim: you can’t do this forever. Sooner or later, you’ll age like they have, you’ll have to stop and find another way to make money, marriage being the obvious answer.
The film ends with an explosion: a terrorist attack kills both Conchita and Matthieu while they stand in front of a bridal boutique, seeming to consider marriage. It’s a tragic finale, but the film casts two Conchitas, so perhaps there are two fates and we are only seeing the one in which she marries Matthieu, hyperbolically metaphorized as certain death. The other Conchita—the one who locked him out of the garden, who doesn’t die in the attack—continues to exist in the surreal, the wild unknown. What happens to her? It isn’t a life that Matthieu could imagine, but it’s one that I choose to believe in for her, wherever she is, dancing to a Spanish guitar. It’s the life that I choose—for my girls, my friends, my people, all of us: laughing, untamed, and free.