That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

September 18th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

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Dir: Luis Buñuel | Cast: Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina, Fernando Rey | Comedy Drama | France | 102min

Luis Buñuel’s career began with Un Chien Andalou with its now iconic image of a razor slicing through a woman’s eye. In his last film That Obscure Object of Desire, the visceral attack and its damage are repaired. A rip in some bloodstained lingerie is calmly sewn up near the end of the film, and the story also begins with on a bloody note. Amongst a woman’s clothes, thrown out by a manservant, is a bloodstained cushion. The woman, who may have stained the cushion, is finally accepted back by her frustrated lover who cannot live without her.

Mathieu (Fernando Rey) a wealthy, middle aged Frenchman tries to sexually consummate his relationship with Conchita, a beautiful dancer /chambermaid played by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. She claims to be virgin and demands that Mathieu prove his love to her in a different way before succumbing to his desire. These  delaying tactics prove only to be a tease: what she really want from Mathieu is money, and he gets frustrated by her manipulative behaviour. On a train journey from Seville to Paris Mathieu regales his fellow passengers with the story – if his efforts result in a runaround of unrequited desire, then Buñuel’s linear train narrative ‘helps’ to calm and ground Mathieu after his hapless relationship.

That Obscure Object of Desire was adapted from the 1898 novel La Femme et la Pantin by Pierre Louys. In the book the hero claims not to be attracted to blondes as he saw them as “those pale objects of desire” By changing one word Buñuel turns a blonde into a powerful obsession. Buñuel was certainly indebted to Freud. Yet his ever playful relationship between surface attraction and unconscious drive has too much dry wit to ever be mere textbook explanation.

The details of everyday life, attempting to interrupt Mathieu’s blind obsession with Conchita, prove to be both funny and disturbing. A sub-plot is terrorism. Attacks by the R.A.I.J (The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus) occur but never distract Mathieu. His manservant, complaining about vermin, interrupts a conversation between him and Conchita’s mother to show him a mouse in a trap. A waiter notices a fly in Mathieu’s drink and Mathieu is shown carrying round a mysterious sack. Buckets of water are thrown over Conchita and Mathieu. With these surreal interruptions come the repetitions of everyday life. Doors opened, keys turned in locks and Mathieu’s hand always going into his jacket to produce an endless supply of banknotes. Buñuel and and Jean Claude-Carrière’s level of invention is a constant delight. Their plotting and signage is beautifully subtle and assured; shaking us out of complacency, turning habit into a mysterious dream state.

Both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina are splendidly capricious. Whilst Fernando Rey (often regarded as Buñuel’s alter ego) gives a brilliant performance as a man whose bourgeois authority is sorely tested by Eros. That Obscure Object of Desire is a highly entertaining film showcasing the great Spanish master’s sly and subversive powers. Alan Price

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