Why do we frequently make judgements on others based upon their appearance and manner without taking into account their actions?
If you are familiar with Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire, you know that the film is unusual because two actresses play the same part, that of the heroine Conchita, a beautiful and poor flamenco dancer from Seville. From scene to scene, and occasionally within the same scene, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina alternate in the role. The actress originally cast as Conchita, incidentally neither Carole nor Angela, had a disastrous argument with Buñuel, resulting in producer Serge Silberman’s decision to discard the film. Over a few drinks, Buñuel jokingly suggested that two actresses could play Conchita. Silberman loved the idea and allowed filming to resume on the condition that this was the case.
Whether played by one actress or two, the character of Conchita is an enigma. She is pursued by an older “gentleman”, a rich widower named Mathieu, played by the suave Fernando Rey, who finds her irresistible, although she is more than half a century younger than he is. Conchita is simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by his affections, leading him on with intimacy, but refusing to consummate the relationship and torturing him mercilessly. The two are locked in a battle for control that makes them hurt each other over and over again, the emotional pain growing more intense each time. She’s a free spirit. His old world ways of buying her attentions cut against her brand of morality and devalue her. Her teasing strips away the veneer of respectability he has amassed over his lifetime and makes him little more than a pimp or a peeping Tom. Passion that cannot abandon the struggle for dominance has no future.
How does the introduction of two actresses affect this already engaging plot? It could be a sexist invention that renders women interchangeable. After all, the film’s title refers to Conchita as an object, and there is a fair amount of female nudity while there is no male nudity in the film. Or it could be an attempt to find different moods within Conchita, to show how varied and special she is. What struck me most about it was that I did not like both actresses equally, even though they had the same narrative. They both teased, both plotted, both alternated running from Mathieu with pursuing him. So why was I more upset when Mathieu attacked my favorite?
Molina and Bouquet are both talented and beautiful actresses that have gone on to illustrious careers–you might remember Bouquet as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only–but Molina’s open face and the childlikeness that radiates from her big eyes are appealing to me, while I find Bouquet’s narrow face and eyes read more sullen, cool and withdrawn. Molina’s figure is rounder and seems more approachable than Bouquet’s model physique. Part of this may lie in the way each actress was shot, made-up, or costumed. Is my preference fair? Absolutely not, but my prejudice is undeniable, as much as it makes me uncomfortable.
It’s easy to feel this way about actors because we don’t know them and can only react to the persona they play on film, onstage and in public appearances. But we make judgements like these in real life with far more devastating result. We avoid a person because we, for no specific reason, feel they are pretentious or angry, or we trust someone because they seem open and genuine, when the truth is that their facial structure, body language or temperament read that way. Have you ever hesitated to make friends with someone because they were good looking, because they seemed smart or because they were a different nationality or color?
We often treat people as if we have met them in a dark alley and need to ascertain whether they are friend or foe. Most of us don’t live in that kind of environment and we need to stop acting like we do before we create what we fear. We have time to see how a person behaves before we decide whether we want to be friendly or not. In the meantime, politeness doesn’t hurt.
If we can’t abandon our struggle for cultural dominance, what future will we have?