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That Obscure Object of Desire had no trouble at all tossing its audience into a total spin. Buñuel uses two actresses to play one role, a gambit that keeps us as off-balance as is the foolish Mathieu, his familiar obsessed hero. Archibaldo de La Cruz of Ensayo de un Crimen was a frustrated murderer, the spooky hero of El was a foot fetishist and terminally jealous man. Mathieu's more modest obsession is simply to possess a woman the way he owns everything else in his privileged life, and he meets his match in Conchita, a quixotic señorita with a very latin mind of her own. Is she a demon sent to tempt and frustrate the foolish Mathieu? The Josef von Sternberg version of this story, from 1936, was entitled The Devil is a Woman. Or is she simply a modern woman, who wishes to remain in control of her body and soul, who values her independence, and wants Mathieu to love her enough to change his possessive ways before she surrenders to him? Either way, Conchita wraps Mathieu around her little finger as only a wily latina can. She promises herself in bed, but when he gets there, she's bound up in a leather-laced contraption that functions better than a chastity belt. She lies to him in Sevilla, and he discovers that her 'nap' upstairs is really a private nude dance. Are the men in her audience just tourists, as she claims, or clients? Is the young guitarrista who shows up with her repeatedly in compromising situations, just her friend, or her lover? Do they really cuckold Mathieu while he watches from behind a locked gate, or, as she says, was it all a fake to shake Mathieu free of his jealousy? Buñuel has returned to one of his most consistent themes, the utter incompatibility of male and female desires.
This film is handsomely shot in Paris and Spain. Even though the story is told through an elaborate framing device on a train, it's not the structural puzzle that was The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Flashbacks don't blend into surreal skits from which we don't return, unless you think that Mathieu's train companions (a bourgeois woman, her daugher, a judge, a dwarf psychologist) constitute one big joke in themselves.
There's major Buñuel activity nonetheless. The backdrop to Mathieu and Conchita's private problems is a constant flood of terrorist violence. Mathieu reads about 290 dying in a plane commandeered by fanatics. Shootings, kidnapings, and bombings become a constant inconvenience. But though they happen all around, nobody comments on them. Even when Mathieu is held up personally, he can't be bothered to warn a possible next victim. The radio reports that a deadly virus is reaching the outskirts of Barcelona, and nobody pays attention. By postulating a world where random acts of terror are a daily routine, That Obscure Object of Desire takes on another dimension of creepy credibility - our world has become exactly Buñuel's world, of late.
Other details are more enigmatic. Burlap bags show up at the strangest times. Mathieu throws one over his shoulder at one point, as if commenting on his self-assurance that Conchita is finally 'in the bag.' A (very rubber) rat is caught in a trap just as Mathieu is practically purchasing Conchita from her mother. One vision, that combines a burlap bag with a torn and bloody lace nightgown being repaired by a woman in a shop window, is classic Buñuel. 1 Mathieu smiles warmly at the scene. Does the blood mean that Conchita (who claims herself a virgin) has physically capitulated to Mathieu? They do seem to bicker and fuss like any other couple now ... 2
Fernando Rey is once again the perfect Buñuellian everyman, and carries a role much more difficult than his cartoonish consul in Bourgeoisie. Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina do the flip-flop role of Conchita, never once behaving as if told to act similarly. If you exempt the fact that Molina does all the flamenco dancing, there's also no correlation between the kinds of scenes played by each actress. Both take turns tormenting and teasing Mathieu, and both do the apologetic scenes where he bounces back like a stupid puppy. If the idea works, it's because it keeps us guessing, never allowing us be lulled into simply following the events as we would any other linear story. Buñuel is unafraid to constantly remind us that we're watching an artificial construction, exactly the opposite strategem of every other director's movie. The brilliance of Luis Buñuel is that even at age 80, he's such a good director, he can have it both ways.
Criterion's DVD of That Obscure Object of Desire is another fine transfer from prime elements, with more pop and verve than their slightly dullish laserdisc from a decade ago. A racy original trailer is included that sells the film as Last Tango in Seville; it only serves to remind us what a conflicted, non-erotic response we have to all the sexual situations in the movie proper. In an interview extra, screenwriter and Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere talks on-camera to a number of topics, including the dual-actress idea. The excellent liner notes by William Rothman are accompanied by a fascinating text interview with Buñuel that discusses the film's quirky mysteries satisfyingly, even though the Spanish trickster reveals next to nothing. Finally, the disc includes some sequences from a French silent movie version of the same story, La Femme et la Pantin, that includes a very erotic staging of Conchita's nude dance for the 'tourists' - from 1929.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. In El, which is a Mexican movie made in 1950, Buñuel succeeded in
getting an incredibly perverse scene past the Catholic censors. The jealous husband is seen preparing a
needle and thread as he approaches his drugged wife. The unavoidable conclusion is that he's going to
sew up his wife's 'obscure object of desire.' Buñuel impishly forces us to contemplate that which
we'd never think of on our own. His surreal cosmos includes the contemplation of antisocial and
profane acts that pretty much guarantee his exile from polite society.
2. Tellingly, Conchita breaks her pattern of tease - reject only once, when she
actively pursues Mathieu as he's about to leave Seville (and gets the bucket of water over her head). She's
never raced after him before, allowing months to pass while fate or chance (or dwarf psychology) brings
them together again. She's the perfect Coquette until this point, so it's interesting to think that she may
finally have decided Mathieu's worth keeping. What did Mathieu just do differently to motivate this change of
heart? He beat her up! As with the basic male-female psychology of Almodóvar's
very Spanish picture refuses to subscribe to modern notions of political correctness or post-feminist
revisionism .... we're still a bunch of emotional cavemen when it comes to sex, men and women.