That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir) [DVD]
Screenplay : Luis Buñuel in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel La Femme et le Pantin by Pierry Louÿs)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1977
Stars : Fernando Rey (Mathieu Faber), Carole Bouquet (Conchita Perez), Angela Molina (Conchita Perez), Maria Asquerino (Incarnación Perez), Julien Bertheau (Eduoard), André Weber (Martin, the valet), Milena Vukotic (Woman in train)
There are times when major dilemmas during the production of a film result in some inspired artistic decisions. For instance, Brian De Palma's brilliant reimagining of Sergei Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence in The Untouchables (1987) was improvised on-set when De Palma decided he didn't like the scene as scripted by David Mamet. Another of the most famous "happy accidents" is the ending of Casablanca (1942), which rings with such perfection that it is nearly impossible to imagine the level of uncertainty that accompanied its filming.
Such is the case with the brilliantly subversive decision by Luis Buñuel to cast two women for one role in his final film, The Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir). Based on the famed 1898 erotic novel La Femme et le Pantin (The Woman and the Puppet) by Pierry Louÿs, Buñuel's film tells the story of a wealthy, middle-aged man named Mathieu Faber (Fernando Rey) and his increasingly frustrating pursuit of a young, unattainable woman named Conchita.
When he originally began filming, Buñuel had cast Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) as Conchita, but it quickly became apparent that they were not seeing eye-to-eye on the project. It is as at this point that Buñuel lighted on the idea of casting two different actresses to play the same role. Because Conchita is such an elusive and frustrating character, one who seems to be one person at a given moment and someone completely different the next, it made sense to have her portrayed by two different women who, while sharing certain similarities such as hair length and color, look nothing alike. Buñuel eventually cast Carole Bouquet, a cool French actress, and Angela Molina, a fiery Spanish dancer.
There has been much ensuing discussion as to the logic of when Bouquet appears on-screen and when Molina appears. The most conventional explanation is that, when Conchita is passionate and sexual, Molina plays the role, and when she is evasive and difficult, Bouquet plays her. Thus, during a scene in which Mathieu thinks that Conchita is about to give up her virginity to him, we see Molina in the bathroom changing into a long lacy nightgown, but it is Bouquet who emerges into the bedroom and coldly refuses Mathieu's advances.
However, Buñuel has rejected this and other logical explanations, instead falling back on his surrealistic tendencies to let the very disruption it causes be the best reason. Using two women to play one role is a notable tear in the illusionary fabric of the classical Hollywood style, and yet it works marvelously; after the first few instances, we don't blink an eye when one woman replaces the other.
In many ways, The Obscure Object of Desire is one of Buñuel's most conventional narrative films, telling a fairly uncomplicated story using a traditional flashback structure. There are no dream or fantasy sequences. Most of the characters are recognizable human beings who act in very human ways. We completely understand both Mathieu's deep-rooted desire for Conchita and his increasing anger at the way she toys with that desire, constantly teasing and rejecting it.
Thus, Conchita is the key to Buñuel's understanding of the material—her unknowability is the story's lynchpin. Conchita is not one character, but she is not two, either. Rather, she is a different character in every scene, making it impossible for Mathieu to understand her or please her. She is tricky, elusive, sometimes cruel, but always just out of reach. In the end, she is her own person, and the maddening complexity of her behavior is the opposite of how most movies oversimplify human desire to conventional romantic ends.
It would be too easy, though, to see Conchita herself as "that obscure object of desire" implied by the title. Buñuel is up to something else, and the film's title is crucial in this respect. After all, the title is completely his. Prior to Buñuel's treatment, La Femme et le Pantin had been made into some half-dozen movies, most of which either retained the original title or devised something with even more misogynistic overtones, especially Josef von Sternberg's The Devil is a Woman (1935). The centrality of sadistic female power over a man weakened by his chronically unfulfilled sexual longing implied in the title The Woman and the Puppet and The Devil is a Woman was jettisoned by Buñuel for something more abstract and infinitely more complex. As much as we would like to reduce Conchita to a sadistic tease, there is something more to her—a sense of principled willpower to remain her own person—that makes her compelling even when she is at her cruelest. In the end, she refuses to be just an "object."
It is crucial, in this respect, that Buñuel chose the word obscure to describe the "object of desire," thus implying that Mathieu is lusting after something he is not entirely sure of, something he cannot see with clarity. Mathieu is the narrator of the story, explaining his relationship with Conchita to a group of passengers on a train from Seville to Paris, but the title keys us in to the fact that he is not to be trusted entirely. He tells the story, but it is his story from his point of view, which is not entirely reliable.
Conchita—her sexuality, her spirit, whatever it is about her that Mathieu lusts after—is obscure, a word that carried connotations of being both ambiguous and potentially double-edged, inviting and dangerous at the same time. In the truest sense of surrealism, Matheiu's sexual longings are for something irrational and elusive, not bounded by traditional cultural norms or simplistic understandings of what love is. In conventional terms, it is easy to see Mathieu's actions as bordering on the masochistic, but, for Buñuel, this was true passion.
Buñuel parallels this by including a running subplot involving repeated acts of terrorism that was not present in either the original novel or any of the other adaptations. Throughout the film, there are car bombings, hijackings, people shooting each other in the street—acts of extreme violence that are always threatening to crash in on Mathieu's aristocratic comfort. Especially in today's troubled times, this use of terrorism as a kind of parallel metaphor for sexual desire is both intriguing and terrifying. After all, is there anything more irrational than terrorist activities? Surrealism, with its emphasis on the irrational and the nihilistic, taken to the nth degree is terrorism—violence for violence's sake. It can always be dressed up in political explanations, but in the end it is the willful use of violence for the sole purpose of destruction and the fear and intimidation that comes with it.
This is a heady subject for anyone to tackle, and even though he was 77 years old, Buñuel was more than up for the task. That Obscure Object of Desire is, like many of Buñuel's works, a perversely funny film, especially in the way he undercuts conventional notions of both romance and cinema. Yet, the film's disturbing undercurrents ensure that our laughter is tinged with a subtle sense of despair. Much like Mathieu's fruitless pursuit of Conchita, the object of our desire in cinema-going is obscure and ultimately unknowable—do we want to laugh, do we want to cry, or do we want to do both at the same time?
|That Obscure Object of Desire: Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements|| Video interview with co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière|
Excerpts from Jacques de Baroncelli's 1929 silent film version of La Femme et le pantin
Excerpts from Pierry Louÿs' source novel
Biographical information on Jean-Claude Carrière, Jacques de Baroncelli, and Pierry Louÿs
Original theatrical trailer
Reprinted interview with director Luis Buñuel
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||November 20, 2001|
|That Obscure Object of Desire has been given a new, high-definition anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) transfer from a 35mm interpositive. The result is uniformly good, although the nighttime sequences are significantly grainier than any other parts of the movie. Colors are bold and well-saturated without any bleeding, and detail is solid throughout. There are a few signs of age, but for the most part dirt, scratches, and other artifacts are nonexistent.|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is good throughout. There is very little extradiegetic music in the film, so the majority of the soundtrack is focused on dialogue and occasional sound effects, all of which are clear and hiss-free. Criterion also offers the option of watching the film in the original French or with an English-dubbed soundtrack.|
| As with Criterion's DVD of Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, That Obscure Object of Desire includes a video interview with co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who worked with Buñuel on his last six films. Running just over 18 minutes in length and conveniently divided into seven sections, Carrière discusses working with Buñuel, Buñuel's directorial style, and the idea of using two actresses for the role of Conchita, among other things. |
The most intriguing supplement, however, is the inclusion of three scenes from Jacques de Baroncelli's 1929 silent film version of La Femme et le pantin, the negatives for which were rediscovered in the 1990s. The three scenes—Conchita's nude dance, her mocking Mathieu from behind the iron gate, and Mathieu's violent attack on her the next day—correspond closely to scenes in Buñuel's version (despite being a silent film, Baroncelli's version is no less erotic or explicit in terms of nudity). For further comparison, the disc also offers the corresponding excerpts from Pierry Louÿs' novel to show just how closely both Baroncelli and Buñuel stuck to the source.
In addition, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen and a reprinted interview with Buñuel by Mexican critic and essayist Josè De La Colina and journalist/screenwriter Tomás Pérez Turrent in the insert booklet.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick