That Obscure Object of Desire

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Pierre Louys’ novel The Woman and the Puppet, first published in 1898, has been a popular source for cinema, with at least seven adaptations starting as early as 1920 (an American silent by the same name) through 1982 (a German version called Aphrodite). Josef von Sternberg put his gossamer-and-smoke stamp on it in 1936 under the studio-enforced title of The Devil Is a Woman, with Dietrich as the heartless tease Concha Perez and first Lionel Atwill, then Cesar Romero, as her much-abused boytoys. The property suited Sternberg’s sadomasochistic worldview perfectly, but it would take Luis Buñuel, four decades later, to show what Sternberg could only suggest.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), now available in a beautiful transfer from the Criterion Collection, is Buñuel’s masterful final film, a cosmic farce that summarizes his lifelong interest in the pleasures and frustrations of the fetish. Buñuel gleefully exploits the story’s most sordid aspects for black humor in what could be construed on one level as one of the longest, most agonizing episodes of foreplay on record.

Structured as a series of vignettes, the film follows the increasingly desperate attempts by an aging Lothario, Mathieu Fabert (Buñuel perennial and stand-in Fernando Rey), to consummate his relationship with a much younger woman, Conchita (played by two actresses, Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet). The vignettes are scenes told by Mathieu to a group of fellow travelers on a train after they see him dump a bucket of water on a woman’s head. The passengers are worth noting as typical Buñuel busybodies and grotesques; they include a dwarf psychologist and a pair of nosy brats whose mother finally sends them, against their protests, out of earshot of Mathieu’s lurid tale.

In flashback we learn that he first encountered Conchita as a maid and was immediately smitten by her. He arranges a date, but it’s delayed by her inexplicable disappearance the next morning, the first of a series of strange and sadistic reversals that make up the bulk of the film. Later he runs into her again by accident and becomes ever more obsessed. Conchita portrays herself as innocent during their first encounters — "I’m not that kind of girl" — but it’s eventually apparent that her interest in Mathieu is part of an elaborate game of erotic domination that she’s determined to win.

Mathieu’s endless, hopeless attempts to get her in bed are matched by Conchita’s bewildering array of strategies in fending him off. In one scene she says if he buys her a house she’ll be his mistress there. But there’s a caveat: it will happen "the day after tomorrow." (She gets the house; he gets nothing.) Soon after she promises she’ll yield, she balks: "I didn’t really promise!" When she again offers to cooperate, Mathieu naturally takes the bait. "Don’t celebrate your victory too soon!" she says with a grin, her open gown revealing what is surely one of the knottiest, most unassailable chastity garments ever seen outside a San Francisco dungeon. (This doesn’t stop him from feverishly trying to untangle it.) Despite his air of pompous privilege, Mathieu wastes no time acceding to her demand that he kiss her boot.

Conchita’s tease takes on epic proportions, but Matthew holds on tight, like one of those bottom-weighted toy clowns that bounce back every time they’re knocked down. But Buñuel makes it clear Mathieu is not really innocent; he assumed that when his personal charms didn’t win her that he could buy her through gifts to her mother, and then to her. Much of the fascination here is in watching Mathieu’s demeanor change from one of self-satisfaction and class privilege to stupefying frustration as his elusive ideal becomes a sadistic controller. Buñuel manages to evoke a double sense of disturbance and insidious pleasure in Mathieu’s downfall in scenes like the one where Conchita forces him to watch her make love with a much younger man on the other side of an iron gate. There’s a class element too in "low" Conchita’s manipulations of a smug bourgeoisie like Mathieu.

The director’s avant-garde impulses are present here in one spectacular trope: two different actresses portray Conchita, seemingly willy-nilly, with one actress entering a room and the other leaving it. It’s hard to imagine such a narrative-busting device working in any context, but in Buñuel’s hands it resonates as a thrilling symbol of Conchita’s unobtainability. That Mathieu seems to make nothing of it makes it all the more effective, as if he is lost in a search for something that lacks even the most basic reality.

Buñuel’s famed anticlericalism is displayed with typical humor: one of the terrorist groups wreaking havoc in the background is called RAOIJ, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Also typical is a society under siege in the backdrop, with terrorist explosions and kidnappings construed more as minor annoyances than serious threats by the obsessive, delusional Mathieu.

One controversial aspect of That Obscure Object of Desire is what some have construed as its sexism. Mathieu is surrounded by woman-haters; he seems to be one himself when he's not drooling over Conchita: the men in the film, but especially Mathieus' mincing manservant, denounce women as "sacks of excrement!" and insist anyone who goes out with them should "take along a big stick." Some commentators have ascribed Mathieu’s misogyny to Buñuel, but the film’s portrayal of Mathieu as a "puppet" who sometimes pulls his own strings belies this.

The Criterion Collection's DVD features an excellent new high-definition anamorphic transfer, new English subtitles, a printed interview with Buñuel, a racy theatrical trailer, a very informative video interview with six-time Buñuel screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, and clips from Jacques de Barconcelli’s 1929 silent version of the story La Femme et le Pantin.


That Obscure Object of Desire is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.