The films of Luis Buñuel have always provoked a variety of reactions from audiences – from critical adoration to general confusion. Whilst his final film as writer and director, That Obscure Object of Desire, has no intention of doing anything other than reinforcing these various perceptions, it nevertheless makes for a compelling examination of one aspect of the human condition in a satire that is as hilarious as it is disturbing. A re-issue of a new print for this occasionally lusciously shot (when the situation requires it – but only then) is therefore to be welcomed, even if you are not a fan of Buñuel’s oeuvre, and almost definitely not if you are a fly.
Mathieu (Fernando Rey) is travelling back to Paris by train. It’s not the local terrorism that has hastened his departure, his need to get away is down to one thing… Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina), a girl from whom he has intense amorous desires. However he is also incandescent with rage at the many and varied ways she approached their relationship, or lack thereof. He has confirmed his anger by hurling a bucket of water over Conchita from the carriage of the train as she runs along the platform after him. During the journey Mathieu relates the tale of his bizarre relationship to his fellow passengers in the carriage. But in reality, he seems utterly unable to depart from his obsession any time soon.
‘I respect love too much to go seeking it in the back streets,’ states Mathieu and this is the dilemma that faces him. His infatuation with Conchita forms a repeating spiral into what is verging on self-abuse, albeit one he deems to be based upon some form of twisted love. But this is a Buñuel film so there are a number of elements to take on board beyond what appears to be Mathieu’s desire for sex from the apparently virginal Conchita, who is many years his junior. There is the emphasis placed upon societal expectations that are derived from their class differences (themes depicted explicitly and wittily in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)) as well as the deliberate sexual indiscretions that are intrinsic within much of Bunuel’s work from Un Chien Andalou (1929) to Belle de Jour (1967) and beyond. The additional background of extremist terrorism through bombings and shootings, not to say a scene in which Mathieu is mugged in a park, only add to his problems and provides a wider background to the intense relationship.
Mathieu tells his tale of this woeful relationship to his fellow passengers, a mixed bunch who help place his predicaments in context, whilst rendering them even more absurd in realisation. And what realisations they are, for Mathieu’s story is a long one, revealed in flashback. And the viewer has to pay attention both to the temporal elements, and the fact that Conchita is played by two actresses. Indeed these two central characters offer the audience a deliberate lack of identification even as they develop their perception and understanding of the relationship. We recognise Mathieu’s desire but his morality seems dubious and the age issues are potentially problematic. However Conchita’s purposes are entirely – and deliberately – unclear: is she exploiting him, is she totally innocent or even thoroughly cruel? What helps give an element of consistency to the viewing is that the story is predominantly told from Mathieu’s viewpoint. We have to accept that any narrator (as he is for a lot of the film) is biased in order for us to understand whether the outcome will be for good or ill for either party, or indeed society as a whole.
DVD extras include a number of interviews that put the film into perspective as well as contemporary footage with Buñuel. Overall this is another example of Buñuel’s idiosyncratic but dramatic examination of human relationships, filmed in a way that seems entirely surreal but is actually surprisingly realistic.