The final film in the career of surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, directed at the age of 77 years of age, is also the most succinctly and subtly ironic of all his later works, rewarding each visit with further cunning details and suggestive allusions and adding yet more fuel to the director’s ever-humorous take on the eternal absurdity of the erotic imaginings that secretly power the engines of western society beneath a veneer of indomitable patriarchy. But, unlike in their previous two surreally subversive features for French producer Serge Siberman, Buñuel and his long-time writing collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière were this time working within constraints imposed by literary adaptation, in this case the text of a well-known 1898 novel by French poet and erotic writer Pierre Louÿs; a work which had, furthermore, already been brought to the cinema screen on a number of occasions previously, most notably, in 1935, by Josef von Sternberg, in a version starring Marlene Dietrich and also in a 1959 Italian adaptation which saw Brigitte Bardot take the equivalent role.
These past variations on the apparently endlessly recyclable theme of male desire chained and manipulated by the unattainability of a sexually alluring younger female, perhaps inform what turns out to be one of the cleverest decisions in casting history, perpetrated by Luis Buñuel for “That Obscure Object of Desire”; it’s a decision which looks and sounds on the face of things like a gimmick, yet it continues to play tricks with our understanding of character perspective and narrative reliability throughout the course of the picture in ways which are still interesting and pertinent to our relationship with the filmmaking process today: it seems to say that If the same timeless role might be occupied by screen presences as diverse and opposite as Dietrich and Bardot for two different films, then why couldn’t two actresses share the same part in the same film? There are many versions of the tale relating to how this decision came to be made which revolve around the initial casting of “Last Tango in Paris” actress Maria Schneider, and the following suspension of production on the film after either Schneider proved too difficult to handle on set or else she simply wasn’t very good in the role, or perhaps both. In any case, Buñuel came up with a solution which completely transforms the film in a manner which somehow makes it seem all the more subversive for the fact that it constantly appears to maintain the structure and appearance of a straightforward piece of narrative cinema (unlike “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Phantom of Liberty” before it, which entertained by constantly frustrating narrative conventions) while undermining the act of storytelling from within to reveal the unconsciously self-serving agenda being employed by the film’s smoothly urbane narrator (played by Fernando Rey) and the ease with which the filmmaking process simultaneously both colludes and undoes such strategies of dissemblance.
The film starts with a sly sequence in which a wealthy, dignified and conservatively dressed middle-aged man called Mathieu Fabert (Rey) arrives at a large Spanish villa in Seville, Spain, which shows signs of a violent altercation having taken place within its baroque walls: some of the furnishings are stained with blood, a pair of broken-heeled women’s shoes have been abandoned, and soiled underwear lies discarded on the floor of the bedroom. For each of these apparent signifiers of female distress, Fabert has a benign, dismissive explanation for his unflustered manservant Martin (André Weber), as he points each one of them out to his employer. This scene becomes important later. At the moment we don’t know exactly what has taken place here, but we will get a version of events related to us later in the film.
Next, Fabert catches a train to Paris and becomes acquainted with his carriage’s equally respectable co-passengers, which include a dwarf psychologist, a magistrate colleague of Fabert’s brother and a well-dressed middleclass woman and her little daughter. When Fabert notices a young woman with scratches on her face and a bandage on her forehead rushing along the platform towards his carriage, he procures a bucket of water from a station guard and tips it over her head in front of his startled co-travellers! This is the act which precipitates what becomes a story told in extended flashback, in which Fabert explains to his interested carriage partners, through a series of linked vignettes, the chain of events which led him to such an indiscreet public act of shaming. The magistrate is assured that, since Fabert is a gentleman, he must have had a very good reason for doing what he did, and Fabert assures the magistrate that ‘that lady is the foulest woman alive’.
Flashbacks and tales told within tales related by the story’s protagonists to each other are a device common to all three of Luis Buñuel’s Silberman productions at the tail-end of his career, a technique inspired by his love of Spanish literature and particularly the work of Cervantes, etc., but used in very different ways in each film. This film appears at first to be a rather conventional, sober account of a series of past events in the life of the male narrator, which take place over a number of years starting from the moment of Fabert’s first meeting with the woman we’ve just seen drenched, after she is employed as a chambermaid in Fabert’s Parisian townhouse. Instantly smitten with the Spanish-born ‘Conchita’, he contrives to have her visit him that night in his room, where he attempts unsuccessfully to seduce her; but the next day he finds she has left his employment early that morning out of an unwillingness to abandon herself to him. Thereafter he meets her again briefly in Switzerland, and later tracks her down to a run-down apartment in a poor slum district of Paris. Over the course of the next year he makes regular visits bearing gifts and envelops of money for Conchita and her very appreciative mother. But when, having determined that neither she nor her mothers are conventionally religious even though the latter spends all day at church (‘the rosary may be in their hands but the Devil is under their skirts’), Fabert attempts to pay Conchita’s mother to let her daughter live with him unmarried in his Parisian home, the object of his love and lust disappears for a second time, leaving the note: ‘I wanted to give myself to you. You wanted to buy me from my mother. I will never see you again!’
But of course it is not long before they do meet again and Fabert’s tale continues -- and the back-and-forth battle of male desire captivated and continually thwarted in its intentions by youthful pulchritude goes on. Each time Fabert appears to have engineered conditions so that they favour him getting what he wants, Conchita proves elusive once more. When he finally does get her to agree to live with him, she refuses to satisfy him sexually (even donning an elaborately laced chastity corset to stymie his lusts), which eventually prompts him to not only throw her out of the house in frustration, but to use his connections in the justice system to arrange for her and her mother to be forcibly deported from France altogether. Even then, they’re brought back together once again; but the late discovery of Conchita’s apparent duplicity and a string of lies, which are revealed when Fabert finds out that she has seemingly had a young lover the whole time, leads to the violent struggle foreshadowed at the very start of the film, in which Fabert beats Conchita bloody and senseless before leaving for the present train ride back to Paris.
On the face of it then, the tale seems to be a straightforward account of wealthy male erotic foolishness brought low by female cupidity and cunning, although Conchita frequently turns down money in order to make Fabert suffer all the more. But, of course, this is Fabert’s own telling of the tale. We only have his account of the events to go off. In actual fact, Buñuel is constantly undercutting his protagonist’s version of his story in clever, non-obvious ways. There are, of course, the usual surrealist tricks in which subtle unexplained and out-of-place details pepper the narrative (a fly in a glass of wine; a piglet wrapped in swaddling, and nursed by a woman in the street; Fabert carrying around an old, mysterious cloth sack everywhere he goes), which the characters in the story all react towards as if they’re commonplace mundanities of everyday life; and the entire film takes place against a backdrop of inexplicable acts of street violence and terrorism (overseen, apparently, by a group calling itself The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus!). But the casting of two women in the role of Conchita works constantly to draw our attention to a further element of Fabert’s account that can’t possibly be a feature of his anecdotal re-telling of events because he himself doesn’t, and can’t, notice it: Conchita is never a fully definable or quantifiable presence in the film because of this -- because Fabert can’t see beyond the Madonna/whore dichotomy clichés he grafts onto her as a result of his bourgeois position in society. The two actresses inhabiting the role have obviously been cast to fulfil those two polarities: Carole Bouquet (who later became a Bond Girl in “For Your Eyes Only”) is willowy, inscrutable, virginal, thin and French while Ángela Molina is curvy, lusty, openly sexually alluring, dark-eyed and Spanish in complexion. Neither actress performs the role in the same way, although they’re both dubbed by the same actress. At first Buñuel alternates them in a manner which appears to fulfil each actress’s stereotypical image, with Bouquet playing all the scenes in the screenplay in which Conchita is aloof and mysterious while Molina handles those where she is coquettish and physically alluring. But as the film goes on this strict dichotomy breaks down (the actresses were apparently used randomly so as to disrupt such notions about their roles in the film) and by the end Buñuel is alternating them in the same scene, with one actress exiting the room for a moment to allow the other to take her place and finish the scene wearing the same costume.
The Conchita of the film becomes a creature of the collective imagination, not fully definable and certainly not fully containable by Fabert’s account of her as a tease and emotional sadist; especially when, throughout the film, Fabert often appears equally hypocritical in his motives, guided as they are by absurd whimsies driven by thwarted sexual desire in order to treat the girl as though she were property in opposition to Conchita’s own capricious designs for maintaining freedom in the face of such money and societal power, with the only means available to her. When he arranges to have Conchita deported so as to be free of her influence over his mind altogether for instance, Fabert decides to help himself to forget her by visiting some randomly determined destination, decided upon by sticking a pin in a map of the world while blindfolded. But he then proceeds to completely ignore that decision, and holidays in Seville instead, which, as Conchita’s birthplace, is a fair bet for being somewhere he can expect to come across her again.
Similarly, when Conchita rejects Fabert’s attempts to pay her mother for the pleasure of having her live with him in France, and leaves him the note saying she will never see him again, she still takes a job as a hat check girl at one of the high class metropolitan restaurants she would surly expect Fabert to frequent sooner or later. At the end of the film, Conchita (in both her personas) repays Fabert’s act of public humiliation by repeating the same action against him. There is a sense in which the whole narrative Fabert has been relating to his co-passengers is a construct designed to justify his act of anti-social behaviour towards this woman and to restore his shattered image of respectability in their eyes by glossing it as not only tolerable but actually necessary; yet her repeating of the act with the bucket of water signals, at the very least, that his account is not to be entirely trusted.
Though marked by their unending back-and-forth power-play of passion and romantic frustrations, of lived cruelties and social absurdities, there’s a core of ineffability inherent in both Fabert’s and Conchita’s actions, and in the heart of their relationship in general, which is no more discernible than in Fabert’s attitude following a sequence which shows him being robbed at knife-point in a park by three long-haired youths during his stay in Switzerland: the whole film has been peppered throughout with depictions (or else much talk) of acts of urban terrorism, which are apparently taking place all over Europe, and at first this sequence seems to fit in with the general pattern seen elsewhere, in which car bombs explode or car-jackings occur in quiet residential streets -- a backdrop to the film’s succession of sexually charged flirtations and failed seductions. Curiously, the muggers in the park insist on only taking 800 francs and hand the rest back to their bewildered victim, whereupon Fabert wanders from the episode, too shell-shocked to flag down a passing gendarme, back to his hotel. Later, he sees Conchita (in her ‘mysterious’ French ‘Bouquet’ persona) for the first time since first meeting her when she was a maid in his house. She tells him that the muggers are friends of hers and that they had needed the money urgently because the group had become stranded and couldn’t pay their way home. Suddenly, this act of robbery and threatened violence magically becomes transformed in Fabert’s eyes, like alchemy, into a gift of love, simply because of Conchita’s indirect involvement in it; Conchita, perhaps disingenuously, promises to repay the money and offers him her mother’s address in Paris, but not only does Fabert refuse repayment he tries to make her take more of his money as a further token of his affection!
Here we begin see how social and political motives and actions are inscrutable and fluid in meaning for Buñuel, blind revolt being equivalent to and inspired by blind desire; the film’s disconcerting eruptions of urban violence soon take on a stranger significance which somehow relates to the hidden drives directing our two protagonists. The final sequence of the movie is perhaps one of the more memorable and indefinably strange in Buñuel’s filmography, turning an ordinary scene involving a couple window browsing in a Parisian shopping precinct -- still with Conchita drifting between her two personas – who then stop and gaze into a store-front window. This is where we finally find out what’s inside Fabert’s old cloth sack, because an old woman sits in the store window with it and removes a virgin-white silk & lace nightgown stained with blood, and proceeds to sew up a tear in it as a Tannoy announcement warns of more terrorist attacks being carried out in the area by a bewildering array of leftist groups and right wing paramilitaries. This simple scene linking the everyday minutiae of social interaction, symbolic images and the wider socio-political context in which they are situated and interpreted, provides a typically ambiguous conclusion to Luis Buñuel’s exploration of the untameable drives which structure our lives.
“That Obscure Object of Desire” remains a lively, humorous and subversive, absurdist treat for the connoisseur of cinematic innovation. Best of all it looks fab in HD courtesy of Studio Canal’s new Blu-ray edition, released as part of the latest “Studio Canal Collection”, which revisits previously released titles from Studio Canal’s catalogue of over 5,000 titles. The detail, contrast and colour discernible with this release provides the best rendering yet out of all the Luis Buñuel titles which have been made available on Blu-ray thus far, and the mono audio tracks (available in French, German and English dubs with clear, removable English subtitles) are also strong. The release will come with a booklet by Peter William Evans, author of ‘The Films of Luis Buñuel: Subjectivity and Desire’ (this was not available for review purposes) but there are also some very strong featurettes/interviews available as extra features on the disc.
First up, an 11 minute interview with Carlos Saura, the Spanish film director and photographer who became a great friend and associate of Buñuel’s after he returned to his native Spain in the early 1960s, and who provides a snapshot here of his personal memories of the man during that period. “Arbitrary Desire” is a half-hour interview with the director’s screenwriting partner Jean-Claude Carrière, who has a great many interesting things to say about his partnership with Buñuel and their working methods, and gives an informative account of a meeting between Hitchcock and Buñuel which took place after the master of suspense had viewed his film “Tristana”. “Double Dames” is another half-hour documentary in which the two actresses who portrayed Conchita, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, relate their individual accounts of how they came to be cast in the joint-role and then talk frankly about the experience of shooting the film. Finally, “Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker” sees assistant director Pierre Lary and cinematographer Edmond Richard explaining the master’s deceptively simple-looking approach to his craft and how they went about realising it for him, in this engrossing 15 minute featurette.
All in all this is a very fine presentation with some enticing extras for what remains one of the great masterpieces of European cinema, and certainly one of Luis Buñuel’s very best films, as well as his last. A fitting way to say goodbye.
Be Sure to Check out Black Gloves blog at Nothing But the Night!