THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (Luis Buñuel, 1977)

Based on the same 1898 novel, The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs, as Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Luis Buñuel’s final film, Cet obscur objet du désir, co-written by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, plays with different ethnic and stylistic aspects of Buñuel’s cinematic and noncinematic identity. Two different actresses, one Spanish, the other French, play Conchita, with whom the much older Mateo (Fernando Rey, marvelous) is completely smitten. Mateo generously extends money and gifts—eventually, a house—to his financially strapped former maid and her mother, only to suffer a string of humiliations beginning with their moving from their apartment without warning him or leaving a new address. The novel’s action has been updated to the present. It nearly begins with Mateo’s impassively “drenching” Conchita, in effect baptizing the sinner, with a bucket of water. He then proceeds to explain to fellow train compartment passengers why he has done this.
     The time is politically incendiary. Early on, a car explodes, presumably the work of terrorists. The sequence is cut so that it initially seems that Mateo himself has burst into flames. At the last, there is an explosion in the street as Conchita refuses to bend to Mateo’s will. Is it possible that Conchita’s mind was the source of the explosion? That Mateo must learn what women want? Recognition that a woman’s body is her own no matter how much a man has, he believes, paid for it?
     This is a more poised film than Sternberg’s harsher, more brilliant version; watching it, one misses Marlene Dietrich’s elegant vulgarity. Buñuel: “In addition to the theme of the impossibility of ever truly possessing a woman’s body, the film insists on maintaining [a] climate of insecurity and imminent disaster.”

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