• That Obscure Object of Desire

    By William Rothman

    All of Luis Buñuel’s films, from his early surrealist classics to the masterpieces he made in Europe late in his career, are compelling, seductive works about the mystery and perversity of human desire. They celebrate human freedom, even as they provoke us to acknowledge how unfreely we actually live—how we conspire with society to keep ourselves from satisfying our natural desires.

    The great Spanish director once wrote that his films would convey to audiences “the absolute certainty that they do not live in the best of all possible worlds.” Note the characteristic ambiguity of Buñuel’s formulation. In declaring his lifelong desire as an artist, he describes the films he “would make,” pointedly withholding judgment on the films he did make. Have these films then satisfied, or failed to satisfy, his intents?

    That Obscure Object of Desire, made in 1977 when Buñuel was almost eighty, is a seductive work that exemplifies, even as it studies, the perversity of human desire. It is the director’s last word on this, his great subject. It is thus a fitting conclusion to his illustrious career.

    Adapted from the Pierre Louÿs novel on which Josef von Sternberg based The Devil is a Woman four decades earlier, That Obscure Object of Desire tells the story of Mathieu, an aging aristocrat, who pursues the young Conchita through a series of amorous encounters in which she arouses his desire but denies his sexual satisfaction.

    Mathieu is Fernando Rey, starring in his fourth Buñuel film. Already in Tristana, critics found it natural to refer to the urbane Rey, whose placid expression seems to mask a seething erotic imagination, as Buñuel’s alter ego. In That Obscure Object of Desire, this connection is enhanced by the fact that the Rey character doubles as a storyteller. Most of the film is a series of flashbacks illustrating the story Mathieu tells fellow passengers on the train to Paris to explain why he poured a bucket of water on a woman at the Seville train station.

    In telling his story, Mathieu is an obtuse narrator who patronizes the film’s subjects without recognizing his affinity with them. Mathieu expects his story to vindicate him. Initially, his listeners seem to accept his view that the woman at the train station is a devil incarnate. By the time Conchita punctuates the climax of Mathieu’s story by dumping a bucket of water on him, however, we have become fed up with his claims to authority. We can’t help but feel that he deserves his comeuppance. While we do not find ourselves rooting for Conchita, but neither do we accept, simply on his authority, that she is evil.

    Like all great Buñuel characters, Conchita is an ambiguous figure. Her ambiguity is conveyed by the brilliant device of having her played by two strikingly different actresses: Carole Bouquet, reserved, elegant and très French, and Angela Molina, a dark, sensual Spanish beauty. Conchita can be viewed as a devil of a woman. But she can also be viewed as a modern heroine who refuses, on principle, to be reduced to an “object of desire.”

    “I don’t belong to anyone,” Conchita declares. “I belong to myself.” She would happily give herself to Mathieu, she tells him. But like Jean Arthur in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, Conchita is hard to get––Mathieu has to ask her. That is, he has to ask her in a way that respects her freedom to say no. Mathieu, who is privileged—but also constrained––by his wealth and by the power a patriarchal society accords to men, is unwilling or unable to treat Conchita as an equal. Instead, he repeatedly tries to obtain sexual favors from her by (literally or figuratively) buying them. Every time he treats her as an object, she walks out on him. To have sex with her, she insists, he has to win her. To win her, he has to change his outmoded way of thinking. But changing our ways of thinking, Buñuel reminds us, is what human beings find the most difficult thing in the world to do. Mathieu, failing to change, perversely keeps doing the one thing that guarantees that Conchita––whether out of perversion or principle––will refuse to satisfy him.

    With each new cycle, the violence implicit in their relationship comes closer to surfacing. Finally it does. When Mathieu hands Conchita the keys to the house he bought for her, she locks him out, tells him she has always found him repulsive, and––in front of his eyes but out of view of the camera––allows a young man to have sex with her. Later, she tells Mathieu that this whole scene was merely play-acting; she is still willing to give herself to him, but only on her terms. He is so enraged, though, that he hits her again and again until her face is a bloody mask. What makes this moment so disquieting is the care Buñuel takes to assure that despite (because of?) the marks of violence on her face, Angela Molina looks breathtakingly beautiful in this carefully composed close-up. Is this violence what Mathieu desires? What Conchita desires? What Buñuel––and we––desire?

    This moment, shocking as it is, perfectly exemplifies the sense of cinema Buñuel had articulated a half-century before when he wrote that “in a well-made film the fact of opening a door or seeing a hand––great monster––taking possession of an object, is capable of enshrining an authentic and unexpected beauty.”

    As That Obscure Object of Desire nears its conclusion, there is another image that captures this notion, and reminds us of the relationship between Buñuel and his narrator. Mathieu, with Conchita at his side, is drawn to a Paris shop window to watch a woman mend a torn dress. Buñuel cuts to a close-up of the lace, bloodied and stretched across an embroidery hoop, as stitch after stitch narrows the gaping hole. He holds the shot until no traces of the tear remain. In his autobiography, Buñuel speaks of being unexplainably touched by this strange and seemingly hopeful vision.

    This was the final shot on the shooting schedule, hence the final shot of the filmmaker’s illustrious career. Surely, at one level this vision of closure is a statement by the artist about his art, about his lifelong commitment to “enshrining” the beauties his camera can discover. But it is not the last shot of the film. After the lace is mended, Mathieu and Conchita walk on. Suddenly, in the foreground of the frame, a terrorist sets off a bomb. Flames engulf the screen, blocking the couple from our view. Are they consumed in this apocalypse? If they survive, do they move on to new, ever crueler, cycles of violence, or will their desires—at last—be satisfied? Buñuel offers no answers.

    As Buñuel films these flames, they are beautiful, too. The shot, however, is a vision of destruction, not of redemption. But it too makes a statement. The world whose destruction he is envisioning is the world of his own creation. In Buñuel’s art, what is principled, and what is perverse, cannot be separated. Buñuel is a moralist. He is also a terrorist.

    William Rothman is the author of the landmark study Hitchcock–The Murderous Gaze as well as three other books on film. He is Director of the Graduate Program in Film Studies at the University of Miami.


  • By Ben Dalton
    December 31, 2008
    12:10 AM

    Interesting companion to a strange cinematic experience by the always-compelling Luis Bunuel. While lacking the definitive answer to the question of why Bunuel in fact used two actresses, as well as what the precise role of terrorism is in the film, Rothman suggests that those looking for precisely logical explanations in Bunuel's dreamlike films are in fact looking in vain. Best just to sit back and let the master work his magic!
  • By Nate
    May 09, 2010
    01:58 PM

    In the extras on the Criterion DVD, the quote from the 1929s saying that the epitome of a surrealist action would be to take a gun and shoot randomly into a crowd is mentioned. It talks about how Bunuel was struck by this in it's written abstracted form and when these actions became reality in the mid 60's with the Baader Meinhof gang etc. It's interesting to see how often terrorism pop up in Bunuel's films, compared to his contemporaries. It's helpful to be reminded how terror is an old phenomena when politicians try justify a war against a tactic that has been used for years.
  • By David
    March 04, 2014
    10:36 AM

    I obviously come along 5 years too late to directly answer Ben's question to him, but here, briefly, is my take. Bunuel was a Spaniard who loved Spain, but for a number of reasons he found himself living and working in France. Rey is Bunuel's alter ego in the film and he has two mistresses, the passionate Spaniard and the cool Frenchwoman...so the use of those two actresses is a brilliant comment on his relationship between the two countries. On the terrorism, - his film is about the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and how they carry on pursuing their desires oblivious to anything else. Think how apt and relevant it is following the conflagration of Syria in 2013/4. How surreal was it to read of Assad, his wife and their inner circle's flirty and careless email exchanges as they bought overpriced trinkets from Harrods, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the country was disintegrating around them. Surreal, and yet oh so surreal, the literal demonstration of Buñuel's abstract point
  • By Carlos primero
    June 20, 2014
    05:11 PM

    A couple of points Rothman has missed. The final scene is not back in Paris but 1300 kilometres away in Madrid, still Conchita’s country. And what the woman in the shop is mending is a torn and bloodied nightdress, in traditional Spain a symbol of consummation.
    • By Carlos primero
      June 20, 2014
      05:30 PM

      Sorry; it was Paris!