Released at the pinnacle of his prolific Mexican period, Él (This Strange Passion) remains one of Luis Buñuel’s crowning achievements. “Ironically, there’s absolutely nothing Mexican about Él; it’s simply the portrait of a paranoiac, who, like a poet, is born, not made,” says the director in his autobiography. Though set in Mexico and ripe with authentic details from daily life, Él is less a portrait of machismo gone awry than it is a brutal and absurd glimpse at one man’s runaway paranoia. Not surprisingly, the film begins on a rather fetishistic high-note. Father Velasco (Carlos Martínez Baena) carefully washes and kisses the feet of the church’s altar boys. His friend Don Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) follows a trail of feet with his eyes, focusing finally on those of the beautiful Gloria (Delia Garcés). Buñuel likens the moment to a falcon spying a dove from above and, while the relationship between Francisco and Gloria is certainly not unlike one between a hunter and its prey, the moment comes to reaffirm the potency of Francisco’s passion and his conviction in the belief that there is such a thing as love at first sight.
There’s really nothing to the film’s first half, which is told from Francisco’s tranquil point of view. Though the entrepreneur has recently lost an expensive plot of land, he remains relatively levelheaded. He returns to the church where he first spotted Gloria and though he fails to seduce her (let alone get her first name), he follows her around town and soon discovers that she is engaged to Raul (Luis Beristáin), an associate in the construction business. Francisco invites Raul to dinner at his home—it’s his way of getting Gloria into close quarters and forcing her to acknowledge their mutual animal attraction. “I have a highly singular view of love,” says Francisco, scoffing “prepared love” while dinner guests warn of the danger inherent in this “poisoned arrow” love. Father Velasco, also in attendance, is more concerned with the food on his plate to offer any real opinion on the subject. “My thoughts on love are sober,” says the priest. For Buñuel, the priest is the last person who should be interjecting though it’s not long before the director begins to take jabs at Velasco’s misguided, highly toxic notion of honor and justice.
After the film’s dinner party sequence, Buñuel cuts to a shot of an explosion at a construction site and then to a disorientated Gloria walking through the streets of Mexico City. The film soon takes on her point of view when she begins to tell Raul how Francisco turned into a jealous maniac after they married. The trouble began on their honeymoon, aboard a train to Francisco’s childhood town of Guanajuato. Gloria closes her eyes and prepares to receive Francisco’s kiss when her husband inexplicably accuses her of thinking of Raul. On a trip up a mountainside resort, he accuses a man of spying on Gloria (going so far as to thrust a sewing needle through a keyhole, believing the man to be spying from the other side of their hotel room). Everyone from the hotel’s manager to Gloria’s own mother is so convinced of Francisco’s levelheadedness that they inadvertently perpetuate his paranoia. Gloria is ludicrously blamed for drawing the attention of these perceived paramours to herself and, even though she’s been encouraged to make friendly with Francisco’s new lawyer during a dinner party, she is nonetheless accused of being a tramp for dancing too intimately with the young man.
Gloria remains the picture-perfect example of a dutiful wife, standing by Francisco even after he tries to shoot her. Raul echoes the spectator’s thoughts when he wonders how she could have survived the gunshot. Though she fell to the floor after the gunshot, she tells a stunned Raul that Francisco had only shot her with a gun full of blanks. Francisco goes as far as to try and sew Gloria’s vagina, denying her contact with the outside world, not unlike the ghoulish husband that sequesters his wife in Fassbinder’s similarly themed Martha. He mocks her desire to be around people. A delusional Francisco takes Gloria to the belfry of a bell tower, compares the people on the street to worms before contemplating how easy it would be to strangle her and throw her off the tower. (Alfred Hitchcock would go on to recreate this sequence in Vertigo, his classic tale of obsessive love.) And still Gloria chooses to stay with him, because she comes to believe that her husband is suffering more than she is. Buñuel’s semi-comical attention to the material means that Francisco is never completely odious nor can Él be read as a straightforward account of domestic abuse.
If paranoiacs, like poets, are indeed born and not made, Buñuel foreshadows Francisco’s insanity via one character’s reference to the gaudy architecture of the man’s home. A guest at one of Francisco’s dinner parties remarks that the host’s home seems to have been designed by a man guided by “sentiment, emotion and instinct, rather than reason.” Francisco is anything but reasonable but less important than the masochistic bloodline between father and son is Buñuel’s fascinating support for the film’s anti-hero. Father Velasco would later dismiss Gloria’s pleas for help as “truth colored by youthful imagination,” another indication that Buñuel is very much concerned with calling attention to the poisonous wisdom of supposedly celibate clerics advising man to suppress human desire. The effect is so overwhelming that men like Francisco begin to resemble irrational versions of their previous selves. Certainly Buñuel understands and sympathizes with Francisco’s strange passions yet the only person to blame here is a church that has made him into a pervert. Is Francisco really so wrong when he says that the self is the essence of the soul?