Classic Corner: That Obscure Object of Desire

That Obscure Object of Desire was Luis Buñuel’s final film, and you have to give him this much: he was experimenting until the very end. Though the style and discipline of his filmmaking would shift wildly over the course of his career – his first effort, the notorious Un Chien Andalou, was a freeform, surrealist mélange of disturbing images, while Desire is a concrete narrative with a beginning, middle, and end – he would never lose his taste for challenging the ideas and expectations of what cinema was and could be.

In the case of Obscure Object, he made the bold decision – partially out of desperation, when he had to start production over to recast his leading lady – to cast two different actresses in the female lead. This device is not called for by the story (not directly, anyway), nor is it explained in dialogue; instead, it’s a wild and risky method of conveying the frustration of the man who attempts to possess her. She’s too slippery for that, and no sooner has he figured her out then she’s literally another person.

His name is Mathieu, played by the great Fernando Rey (best known to American audiences as the villain of The French Connection), and we meet him towards the end of the story, as his train departure from Seville to Paris is nearly disrupted by the arrival of Conchita (acted alternately by Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina). She clutches a suitcase and attempts, pleadingly, to jump on the slow-moving train; he unceremoniously dumps a bucket of water on her head. Back in his compartment, his fellow passengers are intrigued (“I don’t wish to appear indiscreet…” one begins, hesitantly), and since they all want an explanation, they get one. “That woman is the foulest woman that ever lived,” he insists, and proceeds to tell the story of how he met, wooed, and was mostly rebuffed by her. (It goes unremarked, as Buñuel periodically circles back to these framing scenes, that he’s telling what amounts to a blue-balls story in front of a child.)

An inarguable power dynamic is in place from their first interaction, as he is a guest in the home where she works as a maid, and treats her with the kind of casual condescension that the upper class tends to reserve for “the help.” He attempts a clumsy pass in his room later that night — “It’s obvious you’re not really a maid,” he says, somewhat over-familiarly – and when she hurries out, he fumes, “I have something to say to you!” There is an assumed importance, you see, and she has not acknowledged it.

But he meets her again, and decides he must have her. Buñuel clearly enjoys playing the inherent comedy of this refined, wealthy gentleman’s absolute horniness for this stunning young woman who refuses to let him closer than arm’s length; she seems to enjoy turning him on, then protesting, “I’m not that kind of girl. If that’s what you want from me, you’d better go.” He keeps visiting, bringing gifts; she resists his advances. “I just amuse you,” she insists. “A passing fancy. That’s all.”

And thus That Obscure Object of Desire becomes something like a wrestling match – or a war movie (full of appropriate language like “If we get married, I’d be surrendering my last weapon”). The key question Buñuel and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière explore is, simply, who will acquire (and retain) agency and sexual control in the relationship, as each wants it conducted on their own terms. They break up and reunite; he never apologizes for his mistakes, or even admits them, and her motives seem to shift as often as the actor playing her. And that’s the genius of the casting stunt; one moment, Conchita will expose enormous vulnerability (“Will you still love me then? Tell me you will, even if it’s untrue”), and sometimes she will reveal unthinkable cruelty. Most consistently, however, she exerts her independence. “You aren’t my lover, or my father!” she tells him. “I belong to no one, and I’m my most precious possession!”

So what exactly is fueling her? Is this a sexual power game? A financial hustle? Neither? Both? “You want the one thing I refuse to give you,” she notes, perceptively. “Just wait a little longer.” But a little longer turns into a long time, and the longer he waits, the more the power shifts. “If I gave you want you want,” she predicts, “you wouldn’t love me.” Little he says or does seems to refute that argument.

As with the best of Buñuel’s pictures, this one is darkly funny: a throwaway bit with a baby pig, the butler’s shrugging insistence that “my thoughts are worthless,” the exact moment she chooses to say “But now I know you love me.” But none of that makes what he’s doing any less serious – these scenes are emotionally and, occasionally, physically brutal. That brutality further manifests itself in a running narrative undercurrent of terrorism and unrest; bombings and kidnappings are happening throughout France as the psychosexual story unfolds, a rising tide against the rich and complacent, like Mathieu.

That Obscure Object of Desire doesn’t explicitly condemn him, and it doesn’t have to, when it can so searingly indict Mathieu’s presumptions and privileges. And it’s complicated, because there are moments when Conchita is absolutely vile to him (“When you touch me, I feel like vomiting! I spit your kisses out of my mouth!”), or when it seems she’s running a con – exploiting him even. But when weighed against the way he treats seemingly everyone else in his life, is this just a taste of his own medicine? And by the end of the picture, when she not only gets her comeuppance but he accepts it, are we witnessing a prototype for something like Secretary? Is this a relationship that, as emotionally toxic as it might seem on its surface, simply works for them? Stranger things have happened, in both fact and fiction, and the fact that Buñuel went out with a film that continues to challenge, confound, and even arouse, all these years later, is high praise indeed.

“That Obscure Object of Desire” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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