“I’ve changed a lot. I’m not the same woman.”
Early on in Luis Buñuel’s surrealist gem, a mild-mannered older gentleman named Mathieu douses a beautiful, battered woman with a bucket of water as she desperately attempts to board the train he’s riding. His fellow passengers are stunned, but also understandably intrigued. What possible sequence of events could’ve led Mathieu to this cold and cartoonish gesture? It’s an irresistible hook, and Mathieu proceeds to regale the other travelers — and, by extension, the movie’s audience — with the tale of “the foulest woman who ever lived.”
That distinction is a lot to live up (or live down) to, but the man makes a compelling case, even if the movie doesn’t necessarily agree with him. Mathieu (Fernando Rey, The French Connection) tells the story of how he met 18-year-old Conchita and immediately became obsessed with her. Conchita was working as a chambermaid to support herself and her mother (Maria Asquerino). Mathieu made a move on Conchita, but was quickly rebuffed. The pair meets up again a few months later, and Mathieu begins financially supporting Conchita and her mother. Despite the fact that they don’t have a sexual relationship, Mathieu is fascinated by Conchita. As time progresses, Mathieu grows increasingly impatient with this young woman who professes her love for him — “I love you too, but I have no desire to make love to you” — yet withholds physical gratification. So basically, Luis Buñuel made an artsy movie about the world’s most severe case of blue balls. (The movie is in French, so I suppose it should be “bleu balls.”)
That Obscure Object of Desire, based on the Pierre Louys novel “La Femme et Le Pantin”, was released in 1977 and turned out to be Buñuel’s final film. (He died six years later at age 83.) To be completely honest, I enjoyed this movie a great deal more than I expected because surrealism in filmmaking tends to be way too hit-or-miss for my taste. On top of that, my biggest exposure to Buñuel’s work as a director came courtesy of the eyeball slicing scene from his first film Un Chien Andalou. (You may not want to click on that link if you recently had lunch…or any meal of any kind.)
So it’s fair to say I wasn’t exactly eager to dive in. That Obscure Object of Desire certainly includes surrealistic (and political) touches, including a mysterious sack, a couple of pests being killed at conspicuous times, and the undercurrent of terrorist activity that is casually brushed off by the upper class. However, what this film — and this Blu-ray release, in particular — helped me appreciate was the sense of play and adventure in what can often come off as an inaccessible style of art.
For example, I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned that Conchita is played by two different actresses: Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. (Buñuel managed to wrangle two of the most gorgeous women to ever appear on film for this single project.) The two dark-haired beauties don’t really resemble each other. One is French, the other Spanish. One is tall and demure, the other more voluptuous and fiery. Yet the result is a totally cohesive character. According to an interview on this Blu-ray (more on the Special Features in a bit), Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere smartly picked each actress’s scenes at random. That meant neither performer was stuck playing just one aspect of the character’s personality.
Now one could reasonably assume Buñuel always intended to make some sort of profound statement with this casting decision. (Maybe Mathieu was so blinded by his lust for Conchita that he doesn’t even notice they’re two completely different people!) The truth is Buñuel clashed with his original star (Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris) and when he needed a replacement, he didn’t really want to choose between Bouquet and Molina. Rey should also be commended for playing what is alternately a pathetic and sympathetic character. You feel for Mathieu when Conchita cruelly and repeatedly teases him, but you also hate him for his bursts of violence and his desire to possess the younger woman.
If anything, the surrealist tag attached to this film threatens to detract from what is actually a fascinating and clear-eyed view of adult relationships. Is sex a pre-requisite of love, and are the two a package deal? There’s also the universal notion of using sex as the ultimate bargaining chip. (At one point, Conchita tells Mathieu, “If I gave you what you want, you wouldn’t love me.”) Buñuel, undoubtedly drawing from a lifetime of professional and personal experience, told this story with both brains and style. I was as rapt as the people on the train.
That Obscure Object of Desire is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 26 mbps. Though this impressive transfer boasts terrific sharpness, the image still looks like it’s very much of the ‘70s. (And I love that.) There are also pleasant, sun-kissed flesh tones and warm, vibrant colors throughout. The detail is not the greatest I’ve seen, but there is also no evidence of excessive (or any) noise reduction. The biggest issue I spotted had to do with shifts in color during several scene transitions.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 French track is a missed opportunity. The dialogue comes through very clearly (which is the most important thing, even if you haven’t spoken French regularly since college like moi), but the stereo track — by its nature — denies us what should’ve been a truly immersive experience. The rears could’ve been pumping out the roar and hiss of the train. The city streets of Seville and Paris could’ve been brought to greater life. There is also very little in the way of music. Finally, it’s clear some actors dubbed their dialogue in post-production — Rey was dubbed by actor Michel Piccoli — so the synchronization was off a few times. (Most notably with Molina.) You also have the option of watching a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English dub, but don’t. (It’s an inferior track; bite the bullet and read the subtitles.)
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
The Arbitrariness of Desire: (35:16) An engrossing sit down with Jean-Claude Carriere, the film’s co-writer and a frequent collaborator of Buñuel’s. (The duo picked up a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for this film.) Carriere compares working with Buñuel to competing in the Olympics (you have to be in top physical and mental form) and defends the director’s right to be “absolutely horrified” at having to explain his surrealistic touches. (“When trying to explain them, we diminish them.”) The writer also states that, when they were working together, Buñuel was always “the woman” and Carriere was always “the man.” This explains why Mathieu and Conchita’s perspectives are given equal weight.
Interview with Carlos Saura: (11:44) Saura, another acclaimed Spanish filmmaker, talks about meeting Buñuel relatively late in the director’s life and championing his return to Spain in 1960. Though Saura provides historical context — by 1960, Buñuel had become largely unknown in Spain — he doesn’t talk much about That Obscure Object of Desire, which makes this interview meander a bit.
Double Dames: (37:31) Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina are interviewed separately and share their recollections of making the film, including what they each brought to the in-progress production. Bouquet (still breathtaking) was making her feature film debut and talks about her extreme nerves and insecurity. The vivacious Molina points out that, although they never saw each other on set because they didn’t share scenes, the two became extremely close. Each actress understood what the other was going through.
A Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker: (16:12) Interviews with cinematographer Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary reveal Buñuel to be a pleasant person, but an impatient filmmaker. Richard says he took on a lot of the technical nuisances to spare Buñuel. Meanwhile, Lary speaks openly about Buñuel’s clashes with Maria Schneider, calling her time on the set an “immediate disaster.” (According to Lary, Schneider was very prepared, but couldn’t deliver whenever the cameras started rolling.)
If there’s such a thing as “accessible surrealism”, I’d say That Obscure Object of Desire is an excellent example. Additionally, this Blu-ray gives us pretty good insight into Buñuel’s creative process.
The film invites repeated viewings to puzzle out its imagery and some of the director’s choices; just try to ignore the likelihood that Buñuel is laughing at you for trying to figure out something that probably has no deeper meaning.