That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Sexual politics and sociopolitics dovetail in Bunuel’s mesmerising final film, featuring two actresses taking turns to play the female lead.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #684

Dir. Luis Bunuel
1977 | France | Drama/Comedy | 104 mins | 1.66:1 | French & Spanish
M18 (passed clean) for sexual situations and nudity

Cast: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina
Plot: Recounted in flashback are the romantic perils of Mathieu, a middle-aged French sophisticate as he falls for his nineteen-year-old former chambermaid Conchita.
Awards: Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Foreign Language Film, Best Adapted Screenplay

Source: Studiocanal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature – Sexual Politics
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Alliance Francaise – French Film Festival 2011
First Published: 15 Dec 2011
Spoilers: No

The legendary Luis Bunuel, arguably Spain’s greatest film director, left behind some of the most acclaimed of cinematic works including Viridiana (1961), Belle de jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). 

His final feature That Obscure Object of Desire is less well-known, though ironically, the film got him his second Oscar nomination for screenwriting. Not a masterpiece in every sense of the word, That Obscure Object of Desire however remains to be in the top tier of Bunuel’s filmography, a comedy that is farcical and whimsical in equal measure.

It is interesting to note that Bunuel’s last film is also French actress Carole Bouquet’s first feature. Bouquet famously played the Bond Girl in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Here, she plays Conchita, a beautiful woman who, when we learn in flashback, is Mathieu’s (Fernando Rey) “obscure object of desire”. 

She playfully teases him, inviting him close, only to decline his advances in various sorts of ways. Basically, if you are in Mathieu’s shoes, Conchita is a huge pain in the ass. The entire film revolves around the farcical interactions – verbal, romantic, and seductive interplay – between the two leads.

Bunuel guarantees strong performances from his cast, and it is a blessing to derive pleasure watching events unfold, however painful and frustrating it is for Mathieu. Bunuel explores the nature of men and women’s attitude toward romance. 

Most men equate love with sex, and while some women equate love with money, it is safe to say that most want the security of knowing that they are the only one in their men’s eyes. Although this plays out comically in the film, it is hard not to think: Why are some men such desperate perverts? And why are some women such conniving bitches?

But being Bunuel, he sets his story against the backdrop of terrorism and gang violence in what is a not-so-indirect socio-political critique on the sorry state of society at that time. Explosions occur in the film, and when they do, they shatter the serenity of life, even when life is hell, as Mathieu, and to some extent, Conchita, would attest. 

The film is more or less engaging throughout, though it must be said that the elements of socio-political critique do seem to be at odds with the light-hearted nature of Bunuel’s film, causing it to be occasionally uneven in tone.

The genius of Bunuel in That Obscure Object of Desire is his decision to give the role of Conchita to two actresses – Bouquet and Angela Molina, both of whom take turns to play the female lead such that without keen observation, you would be forgiven if you thought she was played by the same actress. 

Bouquet and Molina bring different qualities, sometimes quite jarringly, to their singular role. Mathieu’s obsession with Conchita blinds him from this. This leads us back to the big question: Why are some men such desperate perverts? And why are some women such conniving bitches? The answer, as Bunuel would point out, is and isn’t a socio-political one.

Grade: A


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