That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director: Luis Buñuel

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If ever a great director ended their career on a high, prototypical note, it was Luis Buñuel. I’ve always said that everything Buñuel was about as a filmmaker is in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Among his many dreamscapes—from his early, surrealistic L’Âge d’Or to his mysterious, blasphemous Viridiana and kinky sex farce Belle de JourThat Obscure Object of Desire must be seen as Buñuel’s ultimate dream, the final, clear telling of the story of his inner life. It recycles his trademark obsessions almost as jokes on himself and his fans and foretells that this will be the last time he and his anima will spar on camera.

We are barely into the film before Buñuel dispenses a couple of his trademark flourishes. Opening shots of Seville segue to a large home as its master, Mateo Fabert (Fernando Rey, Buñuel’s marvelously pompous alter ego in a number of films), walks through a red, upholstered door into an ornate bedroom and instructs his valet (Andre Weber) to burn a blood-stained pillow he is picking off the floor. “Burn it all!” he says in disgust, as the valet picks up and shows Buñuel’s favorite fetish objects—a pair of high-heeled shoes and a pair of lace panties.

Mateo has decided to leave for Paris, and climbs in his large American car to be driven to the train station. We see another man get into a chauffeur-driven car and a close-up of the car ignition. With one turn of the key, the car explodes in a ball of fire. “They’re even here,” Mateo says, in a “there goes the neighborhood” manner, of the terrorists who will plague the film. As he boards the first-class train carriage, it fills with people he knows—a neighbor (Milena Vukotic) traveling with her young daughter and a judge (Julien Bertheau) who is a friend of his cousin’s. Last into his car is a dwarf—a psychologist whom the judge knows from the courthouse, where he gives expert testimony. As Mateo looks out the window, he sees a woman (Carole Bouquet), black-eyed and forehead bandaged, striding along the platform looking into each carriage. We see him hand some money to a reluctant train porter, who goes into the toilet and emerges with a bucket. When the woman reaches Mateo, the object of her search, he dumps the full bucket of water on her head. She brushes at the water with disgust, throws her suitcase to the ground, and boards the nearest carriage. This act provokes the curiosity of Mateo’s carriagemates, and they listen with relish as he relates the story of “the worst woman on the earth.”

Mateo met Conchita when she was engaged to serve as his maid. She knew nothing about being a maid and had hands too delicate to have done serious housework. Smitten, Mateo made plans to seduce her that very night, but was politely rebuffed by Conchita (now played by Angela Molina). Upon arising the next day, he learns that the object of his desire has quit and left for parts unknown. He loses her and runs into her by chance a couple of times, first in a nightclub, where she is working as a coat checker, and later, in Lausanne, when he is robbed of exactly 800 francs by a couple of young men, and finds out Conchita was behind the robbery to get them only what they needed to buy train tickets back to Paris. He tells her to keep the money she tries to return and extracts her address in Paris, a humble flat on an ancient block of buildings that she shares with her religious, widowed mother, Encarnación (Maria Asquerino) who is too bourgeois and useless to work.

Mateo becomes their benefactor, and eventually the coy Conchita agrees to be his mistress in his rarely used home on the outskirts of Paris. Their encounter at his estate is a teasing comedy in which Conchita is disturbed by the photo of Mateo’s late wife in the bedroom they are to occupy and insists on another room. Once there, Conchita tantalizes Mateo by exposing her breasts, only to reveal that she is wearing a garment that amounts to a chastity belt. They take up residence in the villa, but Mateo catches her sneaking one of the young men with whom she was traveling into her bedroom. For the rest of the movie, Conchita will toy with Mateo, dancing naked for some tourists in a cabaret where she is employed, and wheedling the deed to a lavish home in Seville, only to lock him out, curse his very existence, and make love to a young man in the courtyard while Mateo watches briefly in fascinated horror.

And perhaps predictably, even after relating the entire story to his captive audience, he and Conchita disembark the train and go off together on a shopping spree. After viewing yet another Buñuel trademark, a seamstress sewing a rend in a lace garment Conchita has left with her (reminiscent of Arturo de Córdova’s character’s plan to sew his wife’s vagina closed to prevent her from straying in El), the pair walks off, only to be obscured by the smoke and debris of the explosion that ends the movie.

In his wonderful autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes at length about his lifelong fascination with dreams and imagination. That Obscure Object of Desire is, I believe, his most completely realized dream. Despite the resemblance to reality that is Mateo’s train journey, Buñuel has populated it with the ultimate dream cliché—a dwarf, who, humorously, is a psychiatrist trying to analyze Mateo’s experiences with Conchita—as well as people he knows in some way, as we all do in our dreams.

Buñuel, born in Spain, adopted France as his home and returned to work there in his last years after many years in Mexico, during which he became a Mexican citizen. The director actually has two mistresses—France and Spain—to which he feels affinity, if not fidelity, creating an unstable situation. But it seems to me that what he is really trying to do is to join harmoniously his male aspect and his female anima; this explains why he can’t just break with Conchita with resolute finality, for which of us can truly escape ourselves.

He doesn’t understand his female aspect. She is constantly changing, signified not only by the two actresses who share one role, but also by their different levels of refinement. Carole Bouquet, the face of the most chic couture house in the world, Chanel, is effortlessly beautiful, sophisticated, and importantly, French. Angela Molina is earthy, more brazenly sensual, and Spanish. The language Buñuel chooses for the film is French, but he dubs both actresses with a third one, confusing the issue even further. Buñuel dubs Rey with Michel Piccoli to bring perfection to Mateo, who is called Mathieu in many reviews and subtitling, though we can clearly hear Conchita call him Mateo. The duality of Buñuel’s expatriate status, therefore, also is acknowledged.

For once, Buñuel gives his antipathy toward the Catholic Church a bit of a rest, even though he ascribes most of the terrorist attacks to the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Again, this seems like an in-joke, a way to get one of his trademark themes out of the way so he can focus his attention on his main project of reconciling the duality in himself.

His anima entices him with words of love, pursues him when he rejects her, deceives and berates him, and tells him she doesn’t need his money and can’t be bought. When he calls her the worst woman on the earth, he is actually chiding himself, seeing the native intelligence, integrity, and mischief in himself in terms of his feminine aspect. Does he want to dominate her? Would he if she yielded to him? That, Buñuel seems to suggest, could never happen. The final scene—the closing of the symbolic vagina—leads to an explosion we can assume causes Conchita’s and Mateo’s annihilation. Perhaps this is Buñuel closing the book on his career and life, feeling that a final reconciliation of the anima and animus can come only in death—or at least, he won’t be making any more movies trying to work on the problem.

Otto Rank is one of the many psychologists whose theories come up frequently when looking at Buñuel (much to the director’s amusement, claiming his imagination was not a subject for psychoanalytic study). In looking at this Wikipedia passage about Rank, however, you don’t have to be Fellini, so to speak, to figure out Buñuel:

On a microcosmic level, however, the life-long oscillation between the two “poles of fear” can be made more bearable, according to Rank, in a relationship with another person who accepts one’s uniqueness and difference, and allows for the emergence of the creative impulse—without too much guilt or anxiety for separating from the other. Living fully requires “seeking at once isolation and union” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 86), finding the courage to accept both simultaneously, without succumbing to the Angst that leads a person to be whipsawed from one pole to the other. Creative solutions for living emerge out of the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, “originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life” (1932/1989, p. xxii).

That Obscure Object of Desire moves in a dreamlike way, its flashback structure encouraging the mixture of reality and imagination (as Buñuel said “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories”) that becomes a dream truth. The switching between Molina and Bouquet is confusing, disorienting, further plunging the viewer into the undersea world of the unconscious. That’s when the great director is most effective in weaving his magic, a truthful untruth we are seduced into following to its illogically logical conclusion. l

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    29th/06/2010 to 5:55 pm

    Marilyn, you’ve really given me a lot to think about. I only began to look at gender in Bunuel when I saw SUSANA a few years back, but this has opened my eyes to richer cognitive pleasures in his work. [First, though, I have to analyze the Rank quote, since it's almost a synchronistic message regarding my current circumstances. ] Bunuel’s films may have the shape of dreams, but this essay will be a player sometime soon in my dreams.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/06/2010 to 8:46 pm

    I have, like Bunuel, always been fascinated with dreams and how they form. The older I get, the clearer and more coherent his life project seems to me. I’d be interested in what the Rank quote means to you. As a follower of Jung, synchronicity is always interesting to me.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    29th/06/2010 to 10:54 pm

    This is a brilliant piece, and you’re making me rethink a movie I merely enjoyed the first time around. I’m thinking I’ll revisit it when I’m a little more well versed in Bunuel and can connect it to his other work like you do here.

    See, I told you I’d comment when you wrote about a movie I’ve actually seen!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/06/2010 to 10:42 am

    Thanks, Ryan, but I see so many things I left out. I’d like to rewrite it. And thanks for commenting. I’ll try to write about more stuff you’ve seen.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    30th/06/2010 to 6:18 pm

    I’d appreciate it!

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