That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) is often referred to as Luis Buñuel’s “testament” work, the apotheosis of his remarkable career as a filmmaker. It perfectly blends the type of outrageous surrealism he pioneered in the late twenties and early thirties in Un chien andalou and L’âge d’or, the melodramatic storytelling style he honed in his underrated Mexican phase of the fifties (including films such as The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz), and the elegant comedy of desire inaugurated by Belle de jour (1967) and carried through The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974) in the director’s final flush of creativity.
Buñuel often liked to deviously embed one tale within another, and That Obscure Object launches itself indirectly, already well into its narrative. A respectable but harried-looking gentleman, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), arranges a train journey from Seville to Paris. En route, Mathieu has an ad hoc audience of fellow passengers to whom he can relate his tale of woe, centering around his hopeless, obsessive yearning for Conchita (played in alternation by Ángela Molina and Carole Bouquet), whom he first encountered in her role as a servant. The apparently virginal Conchita has allowed herself to gradually become ambiguously “involved” with Mathieu, but she steadfastly refuses to sleep with him. Buñuel teases us by making us wait for a full-blown flashback, but meanwhile he gives us a preview of things to come, in the unexpected tussle, before the train departs, of Mathieu and an obviously worse-for-wear Conchita.
This strange “battle of the sexes” could have been set almost anytime and anywhere. What makes it wholly of its time are the background and incidental details, which receive ever greater prominence as the film unfolds. Everywhere, it seems, random, chaotic, and senseless acts of violence are occurring; global terrorism (a topic that fascinated Buñuel) is on the rise. The personal realm mirrors the political one: widespread alienation of individuals (the train’s passengers are an oddly atomized bunch), dysfunction in relationships (there is no happy model couple anywhere in sight). It is, in short, a world in which “anguish is absolute and confusion total,” as Buñuel said of the mass media–dominated political ecosystem of the early eighties.
And don’t overlook the film’s fortuitous encounter with a bold, new movement in cultural history: 1977 was the glorious season of punk. Can’t you just imagine the sarcastic invocation of a “Revolutionary Army of the Baby Jesus”—Buñuel’s Monty Python–esque moniker for one such terrorist cell—in the snarled lyrics of a Sex Pistols song? Even that outlandish joke, as cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière informs us in his splendid 1994 book The Secret Language of Film, morphed into a reality practically the moment it was scripted: a bomb was detonated in May 1974 in Paris’s Sacré-Cœur basilica “by a group claiming to act in the name of baby Jesus”!
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