Review: That Obscure Object of Desire

(Luis Buñuel, 1977)

Marking Spain’s premier surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire is a mischievous and studied adaptation of Pierre Louÿs’ 1898 novel ‘La Femme et le Pantin’ (‘The Lady and the Clown’), a film that charts the ways obsession obscures our sense of vision. Starring Buñuel regular Fernando Rey as well as Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina (who jointly play the same character in an intricate illusion, picked apart in the ‘Double Dames’ featurette on the Blu-ray disc), the film is both fascinating and deceptively light, where the mounting threat of terrorist organisations is comically jettisoned in favour of the thoughts, feelings and emotions the characters so fluently divulge to one another.

The film opens with the character of Mathieu (a perfectly straight-laced Rey) throwing a bucket of water over a young woman whilst aboard a train headed to Paris. Immediately quizzical, his fellow commuters set about trying to discover his reasons for such a seemingly random gesture, to which Mathieu responds by detailing the cumulative events that lead him to do so. With the crux of the story framed through a series of long flashbacks narrated by Mathieu to the other passengers (a woman and her daughter, a French official and a dwarf psychologist, all typically bourgeois in Buñuelian fashion), the film promptly journeys back in time as the protagonist – an upstanding French businessman – happens upon Conchita, a young Spanish woman whose beauty and inherent elusiveness cause him to fall immediately in love.

As the world around him slowly begins to fall prey to a series of bombings at the hands of a terrorist group known as the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Mathieu’s infatuation for the emotionally unattainable Conchita (the object of the title) intensifies, leading to a subversive game of sexual cat-and-mouse as each person vies to gain control of the other through monetary and emotional manipulations.

A film about the passions and carnal desires that ensnare us all, That Obscure Object of Desire is a alluringly playful farce populated by the director’s penchant for ironic, drolly observant styles of humour and verbal exchanges. The world he depicts here is one full of dreamlike imagery and wispy relationships, where lust and love are both entirely opposite and one and the same thing. This dichotomy is represented somewhat by the characters of Mathieu and Conchita; he is the ostensibly moralistic Frenchman who treats sex as the means to a conservative end, a tactic to ensnare his conquests under his moneyed thumb. Conchita, on the other hand, is a free spirited soul who wants nothing more than to embrace her passion for dance, constantly accepting then rebuffing her wannabe lover’s incessant advances.

Played by Bouquet and Molina, Buñuel here creates something of a dualism both inside and outside of the film: the contrast of the two actresses’ nationalities (French and Spanish respectively, though it’s mostly unnoticeable) is mirrored by Conchita’s flippancy, indulging Mathieu one moment then rejecting him the next. In a carefully constructed play on the themes of sexual exploitation and sadomasochism, Buñuel focuses on the tragically humorous interplay between feminine subservience and a degenerative patriarchy, fuelling the story towards a seductively puzzling (if not entirely frustrating) conclusion. Though it may not be the director’s finest work, That Obscure Object of Desire is nevertheless a discreetly potent musing on sexual politics (a typical Buñuel concern) as well as a twentieth century morality tale that is quite unparalleled.

(That Obscure Object of Desire is now available as part of The StudioCanal Collection)

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