Analysis of “Él”

Él is a 1953 Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel and based on the novel, Pensamientos, by Mercedes Pinto. Él is ‘him’ in Spanish; in the US, though, the title of the film is This Strange Passion.

The film stars Arturo de Córdova as the insanely jealous Francisco Galván de Montemayor, a wealthy, middle-aged bourgeois who falls in love with young Gloria Vilalta (Delia Garcés), steals her away from her fiancé, Raul Conde (Luis Beristáin), and marries her, only to be paranoid that other men are trying to seduce her and steal her from him.

The film begins in church during a foot-washing ceremony, at which both Francisco and Gloria are present. Francisco watches as Padre Velasco (Carlos Martinez Baena) washes and kisses the feet of a fair-haired boy. Francisco’s eyes wander over to the high-heel-clad feet of Gloria, and his eyes move up to see her pretty face, one expressing discomfort at his gaze.

His gaze at her feet and/or at her high heels, as seen here and in later scenes, suggests that he has a foot fetish. (He is seen putting her shoes away in a hotel during their honeymoon; at dinner at home in a later scene, he looks at her feet under the table. Soon after both instances of contemplating her feet/shoes, he flies into wild jealous rages.)

A Catholic foot-washing ceremony is meant to be a humble imitation of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:14-17). Francisco’s fetishizing of Gloria’s feet, however, doesn’t inspire him to be her humble servant; instead, his fetishizing leads to his possessiveness. He treats her feet, and therefore all of her, as a commodity to be jealously guarded, just as a traditional patriarchal husband invidiously watches over his wife.

The source of his foot fetish can be found when connected with another preoccupation of his: his wish to reclaim land and property once owned by his grandfather–land, where feet and shoes come into contact. This land was his family’s land, and he wants it back. His jealous possessiveness of Gloria can thus be linked to his jealous possessiveness of his family’s land and property; and in this way, she can be linked symbolically to his family.

Right after being upset with his lawyer for not being helpful enough in his suit to reclaim his land, prudish Francisco gets upset with his servant, Pablo (Manuel Dondé), for being involved in an indiscreet sexual encounter with a pretty young maid in Francisco’s employ, Martha, whom he demands that Pablo dismiss immediately. The quick juxtaposition of these two sources of Francisco’s frustration suggest a close connection between them in his unconscious: the possession of his family’s land and property; and the sexual possession of one of his female employees. Combine these with his wish to have Gloria all to himself, and you might be able to guess where I’m going with this.

When he calms down, he lies on his bed and looks up at a picture of the Virgin Mary. He tells Pablo to straighten it. She, as the Mother of God, is his maternal ideal, and he’d never want her looking bad in any way. The juxtaposition of this with what immediately preceded also links it symbolically with those earlier concerns.

We never learn anything substantial about Francisco’s family apart from his grandfather’s land and property. All we know is that Francisco is obsessed with getting his hands on it, as he wants to get his hands on Gloria. People (even family) and things are just possessions to him; nobody but he can have them. He wants them so badly that he’s willing to take them from others…but how dare they try to take them from him!

He sees Gloria at the church again, and appropriately, we hear the fugue section of J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor playing on the organ. The word fugue literally comes from Latin words meaning “to flee” (fugere) and “to chase” (fugare). So we have a fitting soundtrack–with counterpoint following after, or chasing, the original, fleeing melody–for Francisco’s chasing after fleeing Gloria.

When he learns that Raul, an engineer, is engaged to Gloria, Francisco immediately begins scheming to take her from his friend. He invites the couple to a dinner party at his home, with such guests as the padre, a kind of good father substitute for Francisco. Raul and Gloria will come with her mother, who will insist on coming; Francisco says he’ll court the mother, Doña Esperanza Vilalta (played by Aurora Walker; the English subtitles of my DVD actually say, “make love with the mother”). After marrying Gloria, he’ll have her mother as both his mother-in-law and as his symbolic good mother, too, as we’ll see later.

At the dinner table, Francisco speaks of his idea of falling in love. To him, this passion is “nurtured from infancy” [!]; as the years go by, one grows up and sees many women pass by, but that one woman destined to be his will be found, and his love will shoot straight at her like an arrow. She must be his, willing or no.

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

Up until Francisco’s taking of her away from Raul, the latter man has had no moustache, as Francisco has (and a moustache is often seen as a symbol of manliness). Raul seems to have given her up without much of a fight…which is rather odd. Now, no longer having her, Raul has a moustache, and he continues to have one throughout the film, as do all the men Francisco is afraid will take her away from him. Now-moustachioed Raul is seen at a construction site, the machines and vehicles working on the land.

Buñuel’s films typically have surrealist elements, which means there’s a sense of the unconscious mind influencing the visuals and the story. One unconscious association humanity’s had in its mind for centuries is the notion that the land is our Mother Earth. The unconscious represses any desires deemed forbidden, but those desires are never eliminated–they reappear in new forms, though.

Raul and his construction workers, digging into the earth with their shovels, trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, are symbolically penetrating Gaea…they “make love with the mother.” He, with his moustache now, looks more like a man, a father.

Francisco, so much older than Gloria, has chosen a woman so much younger out of a reaction formation against choosing a woman of, say, her mother’s age, an age I suspect he’d unconsciously much prefer. His paranoia of other men taking Gloria away from him is really him projecting his own guilt over having taken her away from Raul.

When he takes her by train to Guanajuato for their honeymoon, Francisco is already demonstrating his possessiveness, that of her and of the land he wants back. They look over the city where his family’s property is; he says he likes looking at it from on high. It’s as if doing so makes him feel superior to it and the people living there. He wouldn’t humbly serve the land, as Jesus would humbly wash the feet of those walking on it: he’d subjugate and dominate it, even if he no longer has any legal right to it. He’d similarly possess Gloria.

As all of his fits of jealous rage go on, Gloria is desperate for help. Since Francisco has a spotless reputation (a narcissistic False Self all too often believed by enablers to be the true one), no one believes her when she complains of his abuse. Not even her own mother believes her.

Indeed, while he unjustly accuses Gloria of being a “tramp,” he has a pleasant relationship with her mother. The two women are split objects in his mind: the former is a bad object, the latter, a good object. Similarly are the men in Francisco’s life split into absolute good and bad objects–the padre is good, and all the young men (Raul, Ricardo [played by Rafael Banquelis], the lawyer Gloria dances with), with their moustaches and slicked back, black hair, are bad objects.

When Gloria tries to get help from the padre, not only is he as unsympathetic to her plight as her mother is, he also reveals an eye-opening secret about Francisco: prior to his marriage to Gloria, he has never had sexual relations with a woman.

She is shocked to hear this: surely a man of his age–handsome, wealthy, and charming (if only superficially so, which should be enough for him to get laid)–has lain with a woman at least a few times! Her mother, at that dinner table before he seduces Gloria, has said it should be easy for him to find a woman; her mother can’t imagine a single girl resisting him. (Now, imagining her mother thinking so highly of him is a wish-fulfillment. So much of this story is really just a dramatization of Francisco’s unconscious.) What could have been stopping him from having sex for all of these years?

As noted above, he has said, at the dinner table before seducing Gloria, that his love is something that has been “nurtured from infancy.” His love is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unfulfillable object-cause of his desire. Now, what is that object-cause?

This desire, having been “nurtured from infancy,” is something Lacan traced back to the mother’s breast, a Kleinian part-object. In other words, Francisco’s “strange passion” is derived from an unresolved, but repressed, Oedipus complex.

Dear Reader, if you’ve read enough of my analyses, you’re probably getting sick and tired of me harping on about all that Freudian hooey; but consider when Buñuel made this film–in the early 50s, when notions of a man unconsciously having a thing for his mother was still in vogue, so this kind of interpretation, as dated as it is now, is nonetheless appropriate for a film of the time. Besides, I do believe I’ve provided a reasonable amount of evidence so far…and more evidence, especially persuasive evidence–I believe–will be revealed towards the end of the movie.

So to recap, Gloria and her mother respectively represent transferences of the bad mother and good mother, these being internal objects in Francisco’s mind; and the padre is a transference of the good father internal object, while every moustachioed young man that Francisco is jealous of represents his bad father internal object.

I suspect that the reason of Francisco’s seeing Gloria, as love at first sight, is that she physically resembles his mother when she was a young woman. Gloria’s mother would resemble his mother as an older woman, and all those young men with moustaches and slicked-back hair resemble his father as a young man. This will make more sense when we come to the end of the film.

What’s curious is that, during the entirety of his marriage to Gloria, he never gets her pregnant. In fact, one suspects they’ve never once had sex. Part of his sexual prudishness seems to be sexual dysfunction. Small wonder he shoots her with a pistol full of blanks: the gun is an obvious phallic symbol whose ejaculations are ineffectual. He is sexually inadequate, and he knows it: he cannot be the Lacanian phallus for his symbolic mother. This is why he’s so paranoid that she’s seeing other men, the symbolic bad fathers of his psyche. That whacking of the stick against the posts of the handrail on the stairs fittingly suggests the symbolism of a guilty teenage boy’s masturbating; the only way he can have sex is with himself.

I consider the Oedipus complex to be the root of his problems because, as Don Carveth argues, it is a universal narcissistic trauma. Francisco wants to have Mother (in the symbolic, transferred forms of Gloria and her mother) all to himself: he wants her as a narcissistic mirror reflecting his entire world all back to himself, because he wants everything to be about him.

This narcissism is important in how it links with his bourgeois wish to reclaim his grandfather’s old land and property. The bourgeoisie are narcissistic by nature, imagining themselves entitled to all the land, property, and means of production they steal and hog to themselves, never sharing it with the global proletariat. Even when his lawyers tell him he has no way to prove he has a legal right to that land, Francisco throws temper tantrums and childishly fancies he has documentary proof that he actually lacks.

Many people mistake capitalism as being, in its essence, about markets. To be sure, the market is extremely important as a generator of profits for the accumulation of capital, but capitalism’s essence is about ownership of private property–factories, office buildings, apartment buildings, farmland, foreign lands gained by imperialist conquest…land. Just as Francisco’s possessiveness of Gloria and his grandfather’s old properties and land are interrelated, so are the capitalist’s possessiveness of private property and the patriarchal husband’s jealous clinging to his wife interrelated. And the psychological root of this jealous possessiveness is the child’s narcissistic Oedipal relationship with his or her desired parent, whom he or she doesn’t wish to share.

If we follow the symbolism of the film as I’ve interpreted it, we can see all three of these strands–ownership of land, possessiveness of one’s wife, and the narcissistic Oedipal relationship with the mother–played out in the scene when Francisco takes Gloria up to the belfry and they look down on the people walking in the streets of the city. Just as he has earlier expressed his contempt for the common “morons” one sees in the cinema or at the race track, he, from the belfry, looks down on those people below as if he were God judging them from the heavens. She calls him “self-centred,” which of course the narcissistic man is.

He thinks it’s “marvellous” to be up with Gloria in the belfry, where we see a huge bell and its clapper above their heads. A comparison I’ve made elsewhere, in my analysis of Belle de Jour (another Buñuel film), is that a bell symbolizes the vagina, and the clapper the hymen. So his ideal is to be above human mediocrity, with his wife as immaculate a virgin as Mary. As I said above, the Madonna is his maternal ideal, and he wants Gloria to embody this ideal; hence, she must be as chaste as he, and he must jealously guard her virtue from other men. She would be the perfect symbolic mother of his repressed, narcissistic Oedipal fantasies, and he would be lord over her life and over the land, which is our Mother Earth. Hence the connection between capitalism, the traditional patriarchal family, and narcissistic, Oedipally-minded child.

So afraid is Francisco of his wife getting any phallus other than his own, he attempts one night to infibulate her. If he succeeds, though, he won’t be able to penetrate her any better than any other man will. This would prove his sexual impotence, since if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want even the possibility of another man having her.

She wakes and screams, and it is only natural that she leaves him the next day, running off with Raul. In a panic, Francisco goes after her. He has several hallucinations, each increasing in intensity: he imagines a maid laughing at him; he thinks he sees Raul on a street corner buying a newspaper; he sees Gloria in a car putting on lipstick; and he thinks he sees her and Raul entering the church of the film’s beginning.

He goes in and finds them at their pew; but when he’s about to confront them, the young man and woman are actually two different people. Then, after hearing the cough of an old man walking behind him, Francisco imagines all the churchgoers laughing at him…even the altar boy and the padre!

This last man, who hitherto has been Francisco’s chaste, paternal ideal, is now no better than all the ‘bad fathers.’ With neither symbolic parent to be his ideal parental imago (i.e., both have traumatically disappointed him), and with his grandiose self (his narcissistic False Self exposed as such) abased and humiliated, the structure of his bipolar self has been destroyed, he undergoes psychological fragmentation, and he goes mad. He attacks the priest, is subdued by the churchgoers, and will be taken away…eventually to be put in a monastery.

Raul and Gloria, now married and with a fair-haired son of about 8-10 years old (who looks rather like the boy whose feet the padre washes at the film’s beginning), visit the monastery years later and ask about Francisco. We learn that their boy’s name is also Francisco! Why would Gloria want to name her son after a man who has caused her so much suffering? Why would Raul, who loves her in a way her former husband has never ben able to, be so insensitive to her as to want to name the boy after her former tormentor?

To me, the only logical answer to why the boy has this name is to regard the whole story as a particularly subtle use of surrealism on Buñuel’s part. As I see it, this boy is the real Francisco (and his resemblance to the boy whose feet are washed by the priest at the film’s beginning suggests a narcissistic wish-fulfillment to have his symbolic good father be subservient to him), and the older version of him is an unconscious wish-fulfillment, a dream of him having the age, manly moustache, and financial success necessary to win his mother away from his father.

The head monk asks them if the boy is their son, to which Raul gives no answer. The Wikipedia article for Él interprets his silence as implying that he may not be the father: I dispute this, for I see no reason to think Gloria has had the boy by any other man, especially by impotent Francisco. Raul’s silence probably comes from the tension he must feel from his son’s still-unresolved Oedipal attachment to Gloria (normally, a boy of his age should be going through the latency period).

(With regards to her name, I’ll mention in passing that, with the entrance of Iocaste in Stravinsky‘s 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the men’s chorus sing “Gloria, gloria, gloria!” at the end of Act One.)

Finally, we see old Francisco as a monk, after the family has left the monastery. He no longer has his moustache: he’s lost his manliness, a symbolic castration. In giving up his symbolic mother, Gloria, and adhering to the nom, or Non! du père, Francisco is now the personification of the moralistic superego. He must remain chaste for the rest of his life.

Will he be happy doing so? He claims he’s found true peace, but the frown on his face gives us doubts. Repressed desires always resurface in one form or another. His zig-zagging walk down that path to the dark doorway, an implied inability to stay on ‘the straight path,’ reinforces our doubts.

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