Luis Buñuel’s career began with Un Chien Andalou with its now iconic image of a razor slicing through a woman’s eye. In his last film That Obscure Object of Desire, the visceral attack and its damage are repaired. A rip in some bloodstained lingerie is calmly sewn up near the end of the film, and the story itself begins with blood. Amongst a woman’s clothes, thrown out by a manservant, is a bloodstained cushion. The woman, who may have stained the cushion, is finally accepted back by her frustrated lover who cannot live without her.
Mathieu (Fernando Rey) a wealthy, middle aged Frenchman tries to sexually consummate his relationship with Conchita, a beautiful dancer /chambermaid played by two actresses Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. She claims to be virgin and demands that Mathieu prove his love to her in a different way before she succumbs to his desire. However her delaying tactics prove to be only a tease so she can get money, a home and other things from Mathieu. He is frustrated by her manipulative behaviour. Mathieu takes a train journey from Seville to Paris and tells his story to his fellow compartment passengers (If his efforts result in a crazy circle of unrequited desire, then Buñuel’s linear train narrative ‘helps’ to calm and ground Mathieu after his dysfunctional relationship).
That Obscure Object of Desire was adapted from the 1898 novel La Femme et la Pantin by Pierre Louys. In the book the hero claims not to be attracted to blondes as he saw them as “those pale objects of desire” By changing one word Buñuel turns a female type into a powerful obsession. Buñuel was certainly indebted to Freud. Yet his ever playful relationship between surface attraction and unconscious drive has too much dry wit to ever be mere textbook explanation.
The details of everyday life, attempting to interrupt Mathieu’s blind obsession with Conchita, prove to be both funny and disturbing. A sub-plot is terrorism. Attacks by the R.A.I.J (The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus) occur but never distract Mathieu. His manservant, complaining about vermin, interrupts a conversation between him and Conchita’s mother to show him a mouse in a trap. A waiter notices a fly in Mathieu’s drink. Mathieu is shown carrying round a mysterious sack. And buckets of water thrown are over Conchita and Mathieu. With these surreal interruptions come the repetitions of everyday life. Doors opened, keys turned in locks and Mathieu’s hand always going into his jacket to produce an endless supply of banknotes. Buñuel and his brilliant scriptwriter Jean Claude-Carrière’s level of invention is a constant delight. Their plotting and signage is beautifully subtle and assured; managing to shake you out of complacency, turn habit into a mysterious dream state.
Both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina are splendidly capricious. Whilst Fernando Rey (often regarded as Buñuel’s alter ego) gives a brilliant performance as a man whose bourgeois authority is sorely tested by Eros. That Obscure Object of Desire is a highly entertaining film revealing the great Spanish master to have lost none of his sly and subversive powers. Alan Price
NOW OUT ON BLURAY COURTESY OF STUDIOCANAL