Bunuel doesn’t round out his characters with the type of psychological realism that explains all their actions and makes them seem like real, rational people. He often leaves motivation ambiguous and behavior erratic (“The Young and the Damned,” “Belle de Jour,” “This Strange Passion”) or uses characters as primarily symbolic vessels (his early shorts, “The Exterminating Angel,” “Phantom of Liberty,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). In extreme cases like “That Obscure Object of Desire,” he managed to do both, undermining familiar notions of character access and identification by casting two actresses in the role of the fickle female lead.
But what makes Bunuel’s characters so great is that when he chooses to get inside their head, he literally brings their mind to life. His ability to plumb the depths of repression, fantasy and fixation and then visualize it on film is amazing. It made for characters that may make little sense within our everyday reality, but which fit logically into an often nightmarish neighboring surreality whose very contrast forced viewers to think about conventions, institutions and personal habits that Bunuel felt were too easily accepted or outright wrong. Sometimes this led to controversy, sometimes to laughter, and often to both.
As a spoiled rich kid during the Mexican revolution, Archibaldo was reluctantly raised by a pretty governess with whom he frequently clashed. One day his parents give him a music box and the governess tells him a fairy-tale about how the original owner could play the tune and then strike enemies dead through thought alone. As she speaks, Archibaldo opens the music box and a stray gunshot from the fighting outside snuffs out her life. Archibaldo is thereafter convinced that he is a cold-blooded killer, a fixation confirmed by a string of similarly fatal coincidences throughout his life.
The only exception is a fantasy that takes place in a featureless fog, perhaps a way to show how absorbed Archibaldo becomes when overcome by his compulsions. Perhaps my favorite surreal touch is the music box tune that rises unbidden in Archibaldo’s mind and sounds like its off-key, slow-motion and underwater.
I suspect that Bunuel was managing to fit enough of his satire into the literal narrative that he didn’t feel the need for as many of fantastical digressions. Indeed, the film works pretty well as both comedy and thriller in a way less jarring (if less exciting) than his more eccentric work.