Renowned Surrealist Luis Bunuel’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, is not a typical trip into Surrealism; instead it features gentle subversion that slowly embeds itself into your subconscious.
The film tells the story of a wealthy middle-aged man Mathieu (Fernando Rey) who falls for a young, beautiful and coquettish woman, Conchita, (played by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). His pursuit of this woman becomes all the more frustrating as she leads him on and lets him down, teasing him and disappearing.
Having two actresses playing one character may seem a confusing decision to begin with but it is completely fitting to the character of Conchita who is such an elusive person, acting flirtatiously towards Mathieu one minute and then appearing to be a completely different person the next. As the two actresses look quite similar due to hair colour and length it is fairly easy to overlook the change, but at the same time they do look very different and so it would be difficult to miss the changes throughout the whole film. Interestingly, this decision to have two actresses was not made at the start of filming, actress Maria Schneider was originally cast but Bunuel was not happy with her. There were two possible replacements and in an inspired moment Bunuel decided to keep them both. The appearance of the actresses in certain scenes is apparently random and Bunuel rejected any logical explanations behind the decision.
That Obscure Object of Desire is loosely based on the 1898 erotic novel The Woman and the Puppet, which had been adapted into films a number of times, perhaps most famously by Josef Von Sternberg as The Devil is a Woman (1935) featuring Marlene Dietrich. However, Bunuel makes the story his own, injecting a series of bizarre incidents and imagery into the film, such as a pig as a baby and a fly in a cocktail, and he parallels the sexual frustration and violence of the relationship with random violent acts of terrorism. One of the most shocking elements of this film is Mathieu’s ignorance to these terrorist acts, his self-centredness all the more evident when he does not care if anyone is hurt in another attack right outside the window, merely stating that they will find out tomorrow.
Bunuel’s anti-bourgeois attitudes are certainly a deep-running theme within this film. Even so we still sympathise with Mathieu despite his often egocentric and unacceptable behaviour. The subtle symbolism throughout, at one point a mouse is caught in a trap just as marriage is mentioned, and the theme of erotic obsession ensures this is a typical Bunuel film but it demonstrates a very self–assured and controlled approach. This is one of Bunuel’s most conventional narrative films which tells an uncomplicated story using a traditional flashback structure. There are no dream or fantasy sequences but there are enough surreal moments to satisfy. A recurring motif of a man carrying a sack adds another layer to the interpretations and whilst at first it may seem fairly normal, Bunuel intelligently intersperses subversive elements, which is far more disconcerting in a way.
The joy of watching this film again and again is in the fact that you will always pick up on another small detail or discover another clue as to the connecting of it all. The story can be enjoyed as a simple cat and mouse tale or you can invest in the issues that Bunuel was also approaching and have the fun of coming to your own conclusions. Perhaps not as memorable as one of his first films such as Un Chien Andalou (1929), That Obscure Object of Desire is subtle but still deeply effective and will leave you with plenty to think about. Bunuel at his best.
The extras on the Blu-ray are thoroughly excellent and bursting with fascinating anecdotes about Luis Bunuel. There is a 10 minute insightful interview with Bunuel’s close friend director Carlos Saura. ‘The Arbitrariness of Desire’ is a 30 minute documentary featuring collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere talking about the making of the film and the process of keeping their imaginations alert. It is full of personal stories about working with Bunuel and going to dinner with Alfred Hitchcock. ‘Lady Doubles’ is a 35 minute documentary consisting of interviews with the two leading ladies, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, who both recall very different experiences of working with Bunuel and ‘Portrait of an impatient filmmaker’ is 15 minutes of Assistant Director Pierre Lary and Cinematographer Edmond Richard giving an insight into Bunuel’s particular working methods and the dreadful start to making That Obscure Object of Desire. The Blu-ray presentation has dramatically improved the colour and sharpness of the film and it was a delight to see it restored beautifully, the finest I have seen this film look.
That Obscure Object of Desire transforms on to Blu-ray and DVD on 10th September 2012.
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Buñuel (scenario), Jean-Claude Carrière (collaboration) and Pierre Louÿs (author of “La femme et le Pantin”)
Stars: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina
Runtime: 102 mins
Country: France, Spain