That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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That Obscure Object of Desire
Cet Obscure Objet du Desir
Dir. Luis Buñuel
Premiered August 17, 1977

In the final scene of Luis Buñuel’s last directorial effort, a radio announcer proclaims that an assortment of terrorist groups, who have overrun the oddly placid version of contemporary France and Spain here depicted and made random violence as common as ordering pizza, have suddenly all joined forces. That this should happen is incredibly strange, as the insurgents range from Communists to Anarchists to hardline Catholics. But all have a common interest in changing your mind, and so too does Conchita, the film’s unpredictable titular object of desire.

The film opens in Seville, as wealthy French widower Mathieu (Fernando Rey) cleans up the remains of a violent affair in his hotel. Hoping to return to Paris as quickly as possible, he is disappointed to discover he must change trains in Madrid. Nevertheless, all of the other passengers in his compartment are also headed to Paris, and are intrigued to hear what led him to dump a bucket of cold water on a mysterious woman on the platform. Mathieu assures his captive audience that they will soon understand his actions, but I’m not so certain.

Conchita, comes into Mathieu’s life as his maid. Mathieu immediately takes an erotic interest in her. He claims only to be interested in sex with a woman he truly loves, but Conchita strongly doubts him, and sets out to test whether he truly loves her. So begins an endlessly repeated cat-and-mouse game whereby Mathieu unexpectedly meets Conchita, attempts to woo her, Conchita refuses to have sex with him (but will do anything else), but then angrily leaves him whenever he pushes the issue; over and over from one day to the next, and one country to another. Accordingly, Mathieu, a wealthy man of influence who seems never to have faced rejection, is driven to madness by Conchita’s actions, driving his obsession further.

Adding brilliantly to the confusion is that Conchita is played by two different actresses. At times, the role is performed by Carole Bouquet, at others she is more aggressively inhabited by Angela Molina. That Obscure Object of Desire is one of several adaptations (and amazingly the last to date) of the 1898 novel The Girl and the Puppet, a cautionary tale about the danger of falling into a trap of only wanting what you can’t have. Leave it to Buñuel to take it to an extreme.

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Signs This Was Made in 1977
The terrorist content is a particular feature. Nearly every sequence is accompanied by an act of terror. Jokes are made about the ubiquity of airplane hijackings. The trial of a terrorist group is a major plot point.

How Did It Do?
That Obscure Object of Desire was a hit with critics then and now, earning a 100% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. The decision to cast two actresses as Conchita was particularly praised, impressively for a gimmick born from the adversity of working with the unknown actress who was first hired to play her, and has found its place in the work of filmmakers from B.P. Paquette, to Todd Haynes, to (ugh) Todd Solondz, to me.

Luis Buñuel never made another film, passing away in 1983. His 48-year directorial career was never forgotten.

Next Time: The Duellists