THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE — CLASSIC FILM PICK
"That Obscure Object of Desire" was Luis Buñuel's swan song to a 50-year career as surrealism's preeminent filmmaker. The narrative expands on a corollary between romantic dysfunction and societal collapse as witnessed through a grotesque example of amour fou.
Buñuel co-wrote "That Obscure Object of Desire" with longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, and based his work on Pierre Loyuy’s 1898 novella "La Femme et le Pantin." Buñuel's masterstroke lay in his casting of French beauty Carole Bouquet and Spanish actress Angela Molina in the same role: Conchita, the virginal romantic object of Mathieu (Fernando Rey), an older wealthy French businessman. Mathieu desires most the thing that he cannot have. He is a prisoner to his own fetishistic trap that finds prominent satisfaction in his own humiliation.
Terrorist attacks and public address announcements about violence from leftist and rightist extremists underlie Mathieu's self-defeating attempts to make love to Conchita, whose hot and cold personality drags out their romantic entanglement beyond the brink of frustration. Thematically, Mathieu represents far rightwing mentality set against the free-spirited leftist struggles of a female underclass that Mathieu abuses even as he attempts to win them over to his side.
Much has been made of Buñuel's decision to fire Maria Schneider before replacing her with Bouquet and Molina, but Buñuel and Carrière had originally discussed interchanging two actresses for the role when they co-wrote the script. Buñuel's used a third actress to voice Conchita's dialogue, adding a subconscious unity to an ostensibly bipolar character.
"That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977) makes its playful attitude apparent during its opening scene. Mathieu douses a bandaged Conchita with a bucket of water on a train platform before sharing his tale of self-inflicted woe with a woman and her young daughter, and a curious Freudian psychologist (who happens to be a dwarf) on a Seville-to-Paris train. Mathieu explains his hostile actions by proclaiming the woman he dumped water upon to be "the worst of all women." By the time the train reaches Paris, Mathieu's brief audience comes to realize that he is the bottom rung of humanity.
Told in flashbacks, the story of his love-at-first-sight affair with his former maid plays out as a comedy of confused social mores among people who should know better. Mathieu and Conchita each display equal amounts of sadomasochistic behavior. Neither is able to transfer their remote inner passions into carnal action. Aside from its psychopoliticosexual theme, the film is an endearing love letter to the cities of Seville and Paris; their sunny locales carry an amusing sense of longing and personal history even as danger lurks in every corner. Buñuel finesses the unrequited love between his characters with such a command of cinematic spontaneity that you could watch the film a hundred times and still come away with fresh realizations. Genius.
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