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.