Tag Archives: Desire

359. THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

Cet obscur objet du désir

“One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired.”–Friedrich Nietzsche

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DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , 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.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 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.
  • Michel Piccoli dubbed Fernando Rey’s voice; so technically, two actors portrayed the male lead as well.

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 Continue reading 359. THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments on this post are closed.

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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)