CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

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DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)”

  1. Fun fact: Mathieu’s claim during his initial seduction attempt that Green Chartreuse is an aphrodisiac led to legal action by the Carthusian monks who make the stuff. Given the sometimes clumsy lengths to which he often went to have mock religion, Buñuel must have been absolutely delighted that he’d succeeded in annoying the church that much by pure accident!

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