"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 8, 2011

"That Obscure Object of Desire" (Cet Obscure Objet du Desire, 1977) by Bunuel (Movie review)

A distinguished gentleman in his fifties has just boarded a train. By bribing the conductor, he borrows a bucket of water and dumps the contents on the head of a young woman who is chasing him. Back in his seat, he tells the other travelers what moved him to this unexpected action. The gentleman is Mathieu (Fernando Rey) and he is madly in love with the young Conchita, who just got the involuntary shower. Although she willfully attracts him, the next moment she tends to push him back even harder. As if she is two different persons, something Buñuel has underlined by having Conchita in the “attracting mode” played by the pert Spanish dancer Angelina Molina and in the “push-back mode” by stylish French actress Carole Bouquet.

Conchita doesn't want Mathieu to have power over her; and Mathieu doesn't want her to have power over him, so he doesn't offer marriage. Their relationship is stuck in the same unholy groove, except that it escalates. Mathieu tries to kiss her, but she flees; he helps her poor mother financially, but she doesn't want to be bought; he tries to make love to her, but discovers she is wearing a chastity belt; he follows her to Spain where she is dancing in a cafe, only to find out she is stripping for tourists; and after he buys her a house she locks him out and under his eyes embraces a young man. But each time she coyly comes back and smooths his ruffled feathers with her charms. The only way to end their terrible attachment would be a big bang, and that is how the film indeed ends...

This is the 30th and last film made by Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), and has been called a summing-up of his work: respectable (or even pompous) middle class characters plagued by strong and sometimes peculiar erotic desires, and therefore revealed as ultimately weak and funny. And a strong dose of social satire coupled with healthy black humor.

Cet Obscure Objet du Desire is also the ultimate film about erotic desire and frustration. The lesson Conchita seems to teach Mathieu is that the ideal woman is elusive. Or to say it in Buddhist terms, that attachment to the senses leads to loss of freedom.

Note: Based on the 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louys, a book  popular with film makers. There is a 1929 French silent version; a 1935 film by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich (The Devil Is a Woman); and again a 1959 French film starring Brigitte Bardot (La Femme et le Pantin).

Other films by Bunuel discussed in this blog are Tristana and Belle de Jour.
That Obscure Object of Desire is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)