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France/Spain 1977
Directed by
Luis Bunuel
103 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

That Obscure Object Of Desire

Luis Buñuel’s final feature film is both absurd and touching at the same time using a nineteenth century narrative form for its structure and wrapping it with allusions to contemporary events.

The story begins with an evidently well-to-do middle-aged male (Fernando Rey) catching a train from Seville to Madrid. As the train departs he is approached by a beautiful young woman (Carole Bouquet) over whom he pours a bucket of water.  His fellow travellers are surprised by this incongruous act and he sits down to tell them why he has behaved in such an apparently ungentlemanly way. And so we learn his sorry tale in flashback.

Based on an 1898 novel by Pierre Louÿs, ‘La Femme et le Pantin’ (‘The Woman and the Puppet’) adapted by Buñuel with his regular collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière it is a story of male infatuation, one that recalls G. W Pabst’s silent era film, Pandora’s Box (1929) .

Rey had played similar roles in thematically-related films in Buñuel’s Tristana (1970) and Viridiana (1961) but the character here of Mathieu is the most sympathetically treated of the three and, most differently, that of the young woman, Conchita, being a classic femme fatale, which neither Viridian nor Tristana were.

Buñuel takes a quite light approach to the story, starting out almost comedically and only slowly assuming darker tones but still never losing the sense of Mathieu as a classic no-fool-like-an-old fool. Equally Conchita seems herself to be victim of her passions, sometimes warmly loving, sometimes coldly dismissive but more from capriciousness than by calculation.

Somewhat questionable is Buñuel’s decision (apparently at Carrière’s suggestion) to have Conchita played by two different actresses, Bouquet and Angela Molina. A decision he took after Maria Schneider was removed from the production, it seems, at least to me, to have more losses than gains. The two women do not represent in any way Conchita's two sides as each of them go now one way now the other and one can’t help but think that one actress playing the mutable character would have been much more involving than this simple literal duality.  Somewhat peculiar too, are the ongoing references to terrorism, something which was an everyday occurrence at the time the film was made and which can be seen as some kind of relatively flippant (the terrorists are called the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus) analogue to the attack on Mathieu’s well-ordered world by the anarchic Conchita.

Even with certain reservations That Obscure Object of Desire is still an charmingly appealing addition to the war-between-the-sexes category of film and a fine swan song from one of cinema's great directors.

FYI:  Josef von Sternberg filmed Louÿs's novel in 1935 as The Devil is a Woman with Marlene Dietrich in the title role.




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