That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) A
In “That Obscure Object of Desire,” which became his 30th and very last film, Bunuel approached his 50th year of filmmaking by revisiting a subject that has preoccupied him for most of his career, sexual politics. Despite old age, 77, Bunuel shows that he has not lost his the playful, ironic, occasionally outrageous touches.
This topic and its related themes of exploitation, misogyny, and sexual sado masochism are some of Bunuel’s most recurrent themes. For Bunuel, female subservience is the touch stone of a repressive patriarchal culture.
The film’s major innovation is in casting two women, the very French and delicate Carole Bouquet and the very Spanish and lusty Angela Molina, in the same role, Conchita, a beautiful if elusive Spanish woman who becomes the object of desire and obsession for Mathieu (Fernando Rey, a regular presence in Bunuel’s films, though the voice belongs to the Gallic actor Michel Piccoli).
Rey plays an upstanding French businessman and recent widower, who has always perceived love and sex in moralistic rather than carnal or physical terms. He takes pride in being able to count on one hand the number of times he had sex with a woman he didn’t love.
Things change, however, when he sees Conchita. Although Conchita professes her love to Mathieu, she leaves him and flees to Switzerland, only to return later as his maid. When Mathieu finally sleeps with her, she is dressed in such an impenetrable outfit (a chastity belt of sorts) that he is unable to satisfy his uncontrollable sexual urge.
This tale of obsessive love is colored with the expectedly amazing Bunuelian touches. Mathieu’s story is framed by a train trip in which he speaks about Conchita to his fellow passengers: a French official, a woman and her teenage daughter, and a dwarf psychologist.
Also prevalent throughout the picture are bombings by a terrorist group that calls itself the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. But the sardnic satire’s most fascinating aspect is the character of Conchita, who is exactly what the title promises–so obscure that Bunuel chose to cast two actresses in her role.
Maria Schneider (“Last Tango in Paris”) was originally cast to play Conchita by herself, but she was replaced early in the shooting. In a stroke of genius, Bunuel then cast two women in the same role, a logical dualism since Conchita seems to vary in her feelings for Mathieu, loving him one minute, and hating him shortly after.
Bunuel’s depiction of the Church’s function in suppressing women and sexuality culminates in a delightfully ferocious farce, based on Pierre Louys’s short story “The Lady and the Clown.” Bunuel converted the story into a twentieth century morality tale, in which sexual mores are seen as a curious form of terrorism.
The structure of “That Obscure Object of Desire” is similar to that of “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”: Both are composed of a series of vignettes strung together by a leitmotif. In “Discreet Charm,” this motif is illustrated by a view of the six characters strolling down a deserted highway. In “That Obscure Object of Desire,” the narrative fragments are joined by another travel motif, that of a train carrying the narrator, who tells his story to his traveling companions.
Sharing his train compartment are a typical group of bourgeois characters including a lady, her young daughter, a magistrate, and a psychiatrist. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the psychiatrist is a dwarf, who, when the lady’s daughter stands to help him lift his suitcase, insists irritably that he doesn’t need any help.
The narrator, portrayed to perfection by Bunuel’s regular Fernando Rey, is Mathiew Fabert, an aging Don Juan, who’s much like Don Lope, whom Rey played in “Tristana.” He narrates his story by way of explaining to his travel companions, who are aghast when they see him toss a bucket of water on a young woman begging him not to leave, while trying to board the train. We later learn that the young woman was Conchita, the object of Mathew’s fondest desire, Conchita.
Oscar Nominations: 2
Best Foreign Language Film
Screenplay (Adapted): Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere
Oscar Awards: None
The winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar was madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret.
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