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With: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina, Julien Bertheau
Written by: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière, based on the novel by Pierre Louys
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 08/16/1977

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

4 Stars (out of 4)

This Movie Has Two Faces

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At age 28, Luis Buñuel co-directed (with Salvador Dali) one of the most notorious films of all time, the 16-minute Un Chien Andalou, still famous for its scene of a barber (Buñuel himself) slicing a woman's eye open. At age 77, Buñuel had not dimmed this playful fury, as shown by his last film, one of his masterpieces, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

That Obscure Object of Desire marked the final collaboration between Buñuel and the great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who worked on six Buñuel films in all, then helped author Buñuel's excellent autobiography My Last Sigh, published in 1983, the year the great filmmaker died.

Though That Obscure Object of Desire was based on a novel (by Pierre Louys) that had been filmed many times before -- most famously by Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich as The Devil Is a Woman (1935) -- Buñuel took the material and made it his own. When he failed to get Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger) for the lead role of Conchita, he instead cast two women, the French Carole Bouquet (later a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only) and the Spanish Angela Molina (who were both dubbed by a third French actress). He used both actresses intermittently throughout the film, changing them randomly without the other characters ever noticing.

The main character, Don Matthieu (played by Fernando Rey, who was dubbed by Michel Piccoli) is a bourgeoisie layabout with no discernible function other than to eat in fancy restaurants. He discovers the lovely Conchita working as a maid in his own home. He makes a play for her and she promptly quits.

But they meet again and she flirts with him. Then she turns cold. Then she comes on to him again. She's not a real flesh-and-blood character, but, as the title says, an object of desire. The two actresses represent the two sides of the woman, the hot and the cold, but intermittently. Neither actress plays only one side. In this manner, she's almost always a symbol for something; evil, love, lust, purity, etc. (Oddly, the two actresses might also represent the two sides of Buñuel himself -- a Spanish-born filmmaker working in France.)

In the end, Matthieu never possesses her, never physically consummates his relationship. Conchita will not give in and have sex with Matthieu, for fear of losing her power over him. Matthieu will not marry Conchita, for fear of losing his power over her. It's a match made in hell.

Matthieu tells his sad story in flashback to his fellow passengers on a train after dumping a bucket of water on Conchita's head on the train platform. (Typical of Buñuel, one of the characters is a dwarf who teaches psychology.) But it's not over yet. Conchita has boarded the train and their story together will continue after Matthieu's yarn comes to an end.

Buñuel punctuates That Obscure Object of Desire with random terrorist activities in France and Spain. Everywhere Matthieu goes, things blow up, cars are stolen and guns are pointed in people's faces. (It's strangely timely now that we can understand and empathize with this sudden violence here in America.) Aristocratic Matthieu, however, ignores all this violence in search of his own personal torment -- as if he believes he's above the horror of the real world.

But Buñuel, who spent his career railing against the bourgeoisie, has other plans for him. The film culminates with a brilliant last shot for Buñuel's last movie -- a fitting end for a man who offended, tantalized, entertained, and shocked so many people for so many years.

In 2001, the Criterion Collection released a beautiful DVD mastered from Rialto Pictures' recently restored theatrical release print. The disc also includes an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and clips from a silent film based on the same novel.

As of 2013, through some bizarre copyright issue, the French company StudioCanal and Lionsgate own the Blu-ray rights to some of the great international films of all time. The Criterion DVD edition of That Obscure Object of Desire has gone out of print, and Lionsgate's new Blu-ray takes its place. Happily, to my eyes, the disc looks fantastic. Extras are different from the Criterion edition, but are still very impressive. There's a 12-minute interview with director Carlos Saura (a friend of Bunuel's), a 35-minute interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, a featurette about the two lead actresses, and a short featurette on Bunuel.

In 2020, Criterion released the essential Blu-ray box set Three Films by Luis Buñuel, taking back Obscure Object at last.

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