The final film of revered Spanish director Luis Buñuel, and also one of his most accessible movies, That Obscure Object of Desire uses several playful storytelling devices while presenting the tale of an older man driven to distraction by his love for a mercurial young woman. Unlike the many May-December movies of the ’60s and ’70s that show middle-aged dudes sharing wisdom with nymphets who open their eyes to new ways of seeing, That Obscure Object of Desire gets after something more, well, obscure. Articulating some of Buñuel’s themes would require giving away the resolution of the story, but in general the picture conveys ideas about class, gender, propriety, and self-image, among many other things. Naturally, Buñuel includes two his favorite tropes, radical politics and surrealism, though they don't render the picture impenetrable, as happened with the director’s previous effort, The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Instead, politics and surrealism function like grace notes, adding ambiguity, complexity, and relevance to a story that’s already rich.
It should also be noted that Buñuel plays a tricky game by accentuating the breathtaking beauty of two starlets, both of whom play the same role (more on that later). It’s as Buñuel hoped to simultaneously satirize older men who court young ladies and beguile the audience with images of nubile flesh. One can only imagine what feminist critics have discovered while dissecting this picture, which somehow manages to celebrate and demonize women in equal measure.
The picture begins with a droll vignette. After sophisticated gentleman Mathieu (Fernando Rey) boards a train, comely young Conchita (Carole Bouquet) boards a separate car. Matheiu pays an attendant to kick her off, and then Mathieu dumps a bucket of water on her head. The other passengers in his first-class car express shock at his behavior, so he offers to explain why humiliating the woman was preferable to his first impulse of killing her. Buñuel illustrates Mathieu’s story with extended flashbacks. After encountering Conchita for the first time in his own home, where she served briefly as a maid, Mathieu became obsessed with her, chasing Conchita across Europe, offering money to her mother as a sort of dowry, and eventually persuading Conchita to cohabitate. She drove Mathieu mad by repeatedly offering sexual favors, only to refuse them at the last moment. A final round of indignities led to the episode at the train station.
Among the many peculiar things about That Obscure Object of Desire is the casting of the Conchita role. For no obvious narrative reason, Bouquet shares the role with the equally alluring Angelina Molina. In any given scene, the audience can’t predict which actress will appear, and sometimes, one actress replaces the other in the same scene, thanks to a convenient exit/entrance maneuver. It’s a typically whimsical touch on Buñuel’s part, forcing the audience to ask questions about identity and perception without providing any fodder for answers. The actresses radiate different types of sexiness, Bouqet icy and Molina sensual, so their collective effect on Rey’s character is more than believable. Still, he’s a tougher nut to crack, part worldly aesthete and part love-addled buffoon. These contradictions make his characterization consistent with Buñuel’s longstanding attitude toward the moneyed class. As to the question of whether That Obscure Object of Desire works, the answer is mostly yes. The movie is mysterious and sly and unpredictable, and the final gotcha moment says something bitterly funny about the ephemeral nature of life—after all the fuss, that’s how it ends? It’s a fitting final statement for Buñuel, frustrating and ridiculous and true all at once.
That Obscure Object of Desire: GROOVY