Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on March 15, 2017
To view That Obscure Object of Desire click here.
Somehow it seems utterly appropriate that Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel released their cinematic swan songs only a year apart. That might sound strange on the surface, but these two men had earned reputations as the greatest of all cinematic manipulators who traded in subverting their audience’s expectations at every turn.
So in April of 1976, Hitchcock gave moviegoers his final gift with Family Plot; it wasn’t supposed to be his last film (The Short Night went into pre-production but was called off in 1979), but it sent audiences out with a literal sly wink straight at the camera. In the summer of 1977, Buñuel had his turn with That Obscure Object of Desire, which seems like a playful surrealist comedy on the surface but turns out to be a wildly subversive look at everything from gender inequality to terrorism to domestic abuse. Instead of winking at the audience in his final frames, Buñuel drops the curtain with a literal anarchist explosion instead. (Don’t worry, that’s not really a spoiler; I don’t think it’s even possible to really spoil a Buñuel film in the traditional sense.)
Looking back, it seems like the professional exits of these two directors were the first salvo in a string of high-profile swan songs that seemed to pile up well into the 1980s with everyone from Billy Wilder to François Truffaut saying adieu in their own special ways. But the Hitchcock-Buñuel parallel is the most instructive as you can see two men closing out their careers away from their native countries (England/United States and Spain/France respectively) and still gleefully toying with their audiences like wily cats. They also both had an uncanny knack for knowing just how much to give the viewer and how much to withhold; Hitchcock had gone for shock value with his late-period hit Frenzy (1972) but slammed on the brakes here for something playful and bordering on screwball at times, which may account for why the film still frustrates many viewers and never pops up in any list of the director’s best films.
Time has been kinder to That Obscure Object of Desire, which was a box office dud but racked up the usual Oscar and Golden Globe nominations anyway and earned some critics’ awards. The film garnered most attention at the time for an undeniably fascinating gimmick: using two different actresses to play the same character, often switching back and forth randomly with no reaction from anyone else in the film. The actresses in question are French actress Carole Bouquet, who went on to star in For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Ángela Molina, later seen in Broken Embraces (2009).
Critics and scholars have fallen all over themselves trying to decipher what this casting says within the film, usually variations on it being a statement about the duality of womanhood or a reflection of the character’s changeability. There may be some merit to that since the story concerns how the woman in question, Conchita, makes romance a living hell for our protagonist, Mathieu (frequent Buñuel surrogate Fernando Rey, dubbed here by Michel Piccoli), by alternately promising and withholding sex while seeming to give it out to others.
However, Buñuel was also open about the fact that the gambit was undertaken to salvage a very troubled film with producer Serge Silberman ready to pull the plug after actress Maria Schneider (of Last Tango in Paris  fame) proved utterly incapable of handling the role, shortly after a similar experience dropping out of Caligula (1979). Over drinks Buñuel came up with the dual actress idea, which proved to be just the audacious touch needed to bring the story back to life. That said, if you view the device as a salvage method, it’s probably about as meaningful as the alternating use of color and monochrome footage in such films as If… (1968) and A Man and a Woman (1966) – that is, it doesn’t actually mean anything at all beyond a means of adopting whatever film stock was available. In other words, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, but don’t strain your brain trying to parse anything deeper out of it.
If the story of That Obscure Object of Desire feels a bit familiar to you classic movie fans, that may be because its source novel, Pierre Louys’ La femme et la patin, had been filmed four times earlier, most notably as Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935) with Marlene Dietrich. However, Buñuel imposes so much of himself here that it feels like an entirely fresh experience. Most notably, he structures it as a story being told by Rey to a group of train passengers (including a dwarf psychiatrist) fascinated by his behavior, namely dumping a bucket of water over Bouqet’s head as she runs along the departing train begging him to come back and talk. This introduces the kind of playful Chinese box structure that had typified the director’s recent French masterpieces, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974).
What’s fascinating is that Buñuel actually does explain how and why this incident occurred, but he introduces other background elements that keep his trademark sense of surrealist irrationality intact. The terrorism motif is the most obvious one, with random bombings keeping the city on edge just as Conchita never allows Mathieu or the audience to feel entirely secure either. It’s a lesson Buñuel had learned and elaborated upon ever since that legendary buzzing box in Belle de Jour (1967): give the viewer enough information to get their imagination going, but leave enough unseen to have them filling in the blanks themselves as they chat about the film afterwards at dinner. The result is, I think, one of the perfect examples of a final film by a great director; it’s filled with the elements that made him great, but it never feels like a retread and leaves you wanting just enough to wish he had stuck around just a little bit longer.
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