Oh, you devilish French people! What with all of your obsession with, well, obsession! Men and women constantly throwing themselves at one another! Sex, sultry sex, and more sensational sensual sex! How refreshing it is to come across a slightly older classic that shows not all of you – young or old – are constantly happily copulating with one another twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! How delightful it is to discover that those rare few of you are doing little more than emotionally torturing the one you presumably love, once and for all proving that the rest of us may very well have a chance to stand toe-to-toe with you in matters of carnal conquest and rejection!
(Not that there’s anything wrong with it …)
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE is the story of an older man named Mathieu (played by Fernando Rey) who becomes smitten with his new maid-servant, Conchita (played in alternating appearances by two actresses: Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). Initially, she spurns his advances – even runs from his affections – only causing the man to be increasingly captivated by her. As their relationship grows (or does it?), the two continue a bizarre mating game, one that borders the lands of faithlessness and self-destruction, until there’s nothing left for a possible happy union.
After watching the film, I had to do some research as, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out just what Spanish director Luis Bunuel (who also co-wrote this adaptation with Jean-Claude Carriere) was trying to say artistically in casting two separate women to play the same role. Over the course of the story, Bouquet and Molina appear interchangeably as Conchita for no particular rhyme or reason I could fathom. The best I’ve been able to ascertain is that Bunuel was a surrealist (an art form characterized by “subconscious or nonrational significance of imagery arrived at by … the exploitation of … unexpected juxtapositions”), the goal of which would appear to invoke a ‘dream state’ under which one’s conscious mind has no influence.
The best this unschooled mind has been able to put together is that, by casting two different women, Bunuel hoped to keep the audience (and his characters) in a persistent state of flux where illogical emotion could wreck havoc on these people. Conchita – regardless of who’s playing her – frequently uses her feminine charms to arouse Mathieu; but she – regardless of who’s playing her – never gives in to him sexually. In fact, the close she comes – so far as the film implies – is that he allows him to lie partially naked with her in bed. When he proposes alternative ways of gratification, she spurns him further, shutting him out of his bedroom or even locking him out of the house.
Also, the two actresses are of different heritage – Bouquet is as French as a woman can possibly be, while Molina is the more sultry Spanish beauty. This could imply that Mathieu’s attraction either might or might not be related to cultural normalcy (i.e. dating or marrying within one’s nationality). Certainly, the women are both attractive but possess markedly differing physical traits, also suggesting that perhaps there is no universal body type provoking man’s desire.
The thrust of DESIRE would be to suggest that satisfaction isn’t possibly attainable – at least not for any measureable duration – because there are no constants that can be added up in any magic formula to display sexual fulfillment. There are only variables – variables which change from place to place, from person to person, even from time to time – and, as such, lasting happiness will always be close enough to touch but never quite within man’s reach.
Lastly, there’s an odd juxtaposition of scenes in the film’s climax that bear further exploration, as I believe they underscore whatever idea Bunuel was reaching to say with his final film. Mathieu and Conchita appear to have reconciled, and they’re shown in an alley perusing windows of some small French shops. Together, they’re drawn to one display where a delicate woman patiently mends a tear in an elaborate woven dress. Bunuel focuses on this scene for quite some time, and then we’re shown our two leads – up in the corner of the frame – speaking with one another, but the audience no longer hears what they’re saying (they’re on the outside of the glass window pane). Are they speaking about the dress? Are they reflecting on their relationship? Are they debating stitching choices? Conchita frowns and walks away, then Mathieu frowns and follows, but – in the last image – we’re shown an explosion (a radio report playing in the background discussed mounting terrorist attacks in the city only moments before) … and that’s the end.
What I suspect – I could be wrong – Bunuel was saying is that even when the process of mending is under way, there will always be elements that pull us apart, that force us in other directions. This would imply that we’re never truly under control of ourselves or our existence – that we’re always subject to the randomness of life – and perhaps this would imply that the pursuit of fleeting happiness is nothing more than the pursuit of fools.
The film isn’t as depressing as it sounds, though it certainly teeters close. Psychologically, it’s an interesting study of a very complex idea, though I would have to say it certainly isn’t an idea for everyone. Scholars might find plenty to get excited over here, but Mathieu sure didn’t. (Pun intended.)
THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE is produced by Greenwich Film Productions, Les Films Galaxie, and In-Cine Compañía Industrial Cinematográfica. DVD distribution is being handled by Lionsgate. As for the technical specifications, this Blu-ray release looks and sounds very good, though I experienced one sequence late in the film the seemed a bit out-of-sync (for a few brief seconds); I have to wonder if that wasn’t a production issue back to the original film. This is a French spoken language release (with English subtitles), but there is an English-dubbed track available. Lastly, the disk includes a nice assortment of special features: “Arbitrary Desire” (an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrier); an interview with Carlos Saura; “Double Dames” (interviews with actresses Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina); and “A Portrait of Luis Bunuel” which is an in-depth discussion of the director and his films. It’s certainly an impressive collection for a film of such distinction.
RECOMMENDED. As I indicated above, this one isn’t for everyone. While there’s a clear narrative at work here, so much of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE is the study of an idea. It’s a surreal investigation into the art of seduction and repulsion – of how love leads to hate and vice versa. All of the players do a solid job, but I suspect the ending will leave more folks conflicted than they are happy, which is probably just what the director wanted.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Lionsgate provided me with a DVD screener of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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