Cet obscur objet du désir
“One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired.”–Friedrich Nietzsche
DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel
FEATURING: Fernando Rey, , Angela Molina, (voice)
PLOT: A man boards a train, followed by a younger woman with a bandaged head; he sees her coming, hides, and dumps a bucket of water over her. When he returns to his passenger compartment, he explains to his shocked fellow travelers that she was the “worst woman on earth.” He then spins the long tale of how he tried to court the young Spanish dancer over many years, but she always led him on, professing to love him but repeatedly refusing to consummate the relationship.
- That Obscure Object of Desire was adapted from the 1898 novel “La Femme et le Pantin” (“The Woman and the Puppet”) by Pierre Louÿs. Buñuel had tried, and failed, to adapt the novel in the 1950s. The story had been adapted to film three times before, most famously as The Devil is a Woman (1935, d. ) with .
- This was the sixth collaboration between screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and Buñuel. All but their first effort (Diary of a Chambermaid) have been Certified Weird here. This was Buñuel’s final film before he died. Carrière continues to write scripts to this day.
- According to Carrière, 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 actress 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. Buñuel, however, seemed to remember it differently, saying that he came up with the idea of casting two women in the part during a discussion with producer Serge Silberman about the fact that Schneider wasn’t working out; although he immediately thought the idea was “stupid” the moment he said it, Silberman loved it and insisted they try it.
- An uncredited third actress dubbed both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our choice is notable not only for its mystery, but also because, coincidentally, it was the last scene Buñuel shot in a career of 48 years. Mathieu and Conchita, reunited and apparently happy, walk through a shopping gallery. In a window, they observe an old woman take a bloodstained lace scarf and begin mending it. Both seem fascinated by the display as the camera focuses on the needle penetrating the fabric. A voice on the loudspeaker describes a bloody assassination attempt on an Archbishop, then switches to a Wagner aria. The significance of this scene is puzzling; more so because we do not know if the couple has slept together, or if Conchita’s virginity is still intact.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Private-lesson dwarf psychologist; Revolutionary Army of the Baby Jesus; pig baby
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In my original review, I prematurely dismissed Obscure Object for consideration from the List, calling it “one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest.” Fortunately, readers corrected my lapse in judgement in a 2013 poll. Obscure Object has occupied my mind for years after I first saw it; a true confirmation of its classic status. I still hold it’s one of Buñuel’s best; and if it’s not one of his weirdest, then we have to allow for the fact that Buñuel’s weirdest includes the prototypical surrealist film and Obscure Object‘s plotless immediate predecessor Phantom of Liberty, among other amazements. Invoking the sliding scale of quality, I rule that a cinema classic where two women play the same role and no one notices qualifies as weird enough to earn our notice. Add that it’s the swan song of one of weird cinema’s founding fathers, and a damn fine piece of cinema to boot, and its inclusion is assured.
Clip from That Obscure Object of Desire
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, gracefully-aging 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 meet 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 eager 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 insurrectionist 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. In the background of the film, bombs explode constantly, radio broadcasts tell of assassinations and epidemics, but amidst all the flying social shrapnel, Mathieu continues his single-minded pursuit of Conchita, unconcerned that the world is crumbling around. Bombings and carjackings are daily inconveniences to which he adapts. The tumult of revolution barely penetrates his bourgeois bubble—until the very end.
Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the bourgeois system of romance: men, the class/gender with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive sex (and perhaps love). This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either gender: men remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. As cruel as Conchita may seem, she’s not capricious. She’s actually upfront with Mathieu about why she will not sleep with him: “I wanted to give myself to you. You tried to buy me…” Yet she accepts his gifts, while explaining “If I gave you what you want, you’d stop loving me.” When she surrenders her virginity, she will have lost the only power over him she has. Meanwhile, Mathieu frets that he cannot marry her, because if he did he’d be “defenseless.” The commercial necessities of the sex-for-security exchange leads to a structural cycle of frustration for everyone. Just as the characters 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. But if you could ask Buñuel, he would surely tell you that my thought was “stupid.” He hated easy symbolism; he scorned symbolism of any kind, seeking, instead, reverberant mystery. “Forget about the explanation. There is none,” he said when directly asked why he cast two actresses to play Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire. “Forget about the explanation” is the paradoxical key to understanding Buñuel’s entire lifetime of image-making, from his first slit eyeball to his final terrorist blast. The obscure objects he desires exist only as themselves, beyond explanation, beyond meaning.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“With an effortlessness matched by no other director today, 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)
“…a mature commentary on the invisible line between passion and absurdity… the lightness with which Buñuel was able to insert the little jokes and knife stabs of surrealism he loved so much is, in fact, divine.”–Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly (2001 rerelease)
“…That Obscure Object of Desire is very much about those irrational and mysterious acts that bring us together. It toys with our curiosity but seemingly shuns our inquisitiveness. Buñuel was a great moralist, but one of the things that makes That Obscure Object of Desire so fascinating is how Mathieu’s moral justifications are betrayed by the director’s own irrational defilements.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant
IMDB LINK: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) | The Criterion Collection – Basic info and links to two essays
That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel film analysis – Short but thorough analysis from “Senses of Cinema”
A Surrealist Red Herring: Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” – Sarah Salovaara declares the dual casting stunt as a “red herring” in this thoughtful essay for Mubi
Buñuel’s Private Lessons – A contemporaneous review in the New York Review of Books; requires a subscription, but the first few paragraphs, which describe the plot of the original novel, are free
Movie Tourist: That Obscure Object of Desire – A look at the film’s locations as they appear today
LIST CANDIDATE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977) – This site’s original List Candidate review
HOME VIDEO INFO: The out-of-print Criterion Collection edition (buy used) includes a fascinating 18-minute interview with Jean-Claude Carrière, who talks about his work with Buñuel in general and Obscure Object in particular. There is also an interesting feature where they have taken three excerpts from a 1929 silent film adaptation of the original novel and included a translation of the book for comparison purposes. Text explains where on the disc Buñuel’s version of the same scene occurs; you can’t click to be taken to the corresponding scene, however, which seems like a strange oversight which should have been easily within 2001 technology. The set also includes the trailer and a booklet with an essay by William Rothman and an interview with Buñuel.
When Criterion lost the rights to Buñuel’s late works to StudioCanal, the films all went out of print in North America. Those with international DVD players can purchase StudioCanal’s version; the picture is reportedly better (we cannot confirm), and the extras are different (including interviews with both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). Criterion was never able to put out a Blu-ray, but StudioCanal did (buy).
Hopefully, StudioCanal will come to its senses and sub-license their Buñuel catalog back to Criterion or another North American distributor soon. (They did so, to Lionsgate, in 2013, but that release also went out of print quickly.) These cultural artifacts are far too important to be treated with such nonchalance. In the meantime, at least you can access this classic on demand for a reasonable fee.