Backlog #10: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire is a delight. Bunuel’s works strike one as conventional, possibly even humdrum on the surface. His method is very economical, quite spare. Things generally are presented as they seem (if one lived in mid-seventies France and had mildly vivid film stock for a retina). Bunuel’s unrivalled (from what I can tell) reputation kidded me into believing (prior to watching The Exterminating Angel) that he was a grand director. In a sense he is, of course, but as I say, at first glance his films are strikingly conventional.

From this base, convention is under attack. Things aren’t quite (or at all completely) what we’d take them for when thinking about reality. This film is a more subtle assault than Phantom of Liberty, but within its civilised and sophisticated background it still knocks us back.

The film is fundamentally a one-sided romance, between a rich gentleman and an impoverished girl (parallels with Tristana). He takes her in, but she, for the entire length of the film, refuses to give herself to him. He’s so infatuated that the suffering is accepted at first, but the frustration understandably becomes too much. This scenario is repeated several times, never as a logical narrative (Conchita will appear out of nowhere to kick in another chapter), but we accept what happens within its framework: Mathieu relating his tale to his fellow passengers in the carriage (which itself is framed by two buckets of water and two bombs).

The disconcertion that is most obvious is the casting of two actresses to play Conchita: one a cool, classical beauty, the other a more vivacious, Latin type. What does this do? Do we take Mathieu’s passion and the film’s theme of frustration love in a more contextual sense as a result? That desire is a more complicated emotion than the one we are normally presented with in art?

Looking back, it is perhaps the most satisfying of the Bunuel’s that I watched. He’s in total command of the film. The story entertains and moves us (Fernando Rey is brilliant as the very unconventional tragic hero) and it all works splendidly well.

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