That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere
Cinematography by Edmond Richard
Starring Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina
Adapting this story from a novel, “La Femme et le Pantin” seems to have grounded Buñuel, and his situations feel more complex and reality-based than the prior two films of his 1970s trilogy. The dialogue here is more witty than absurd, and Conchita seems to represent a certain type of woman who may, in fact, exist. Played by two very different actresses – one cold and distant, one warmly sensual – which are often interchanged within the course of a single scene, Conchita leads the protagonist on with promises to give herself to him. She mocks and abuses him and changes her mind on a whim as though administering some form of surrealist torture. She doesn’t seem to want his money, only to show him how mean and ugly he is through sheer provocation.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks as Mathieu rides with three other passengers on a train. Since this is still a surrealist film, one of the passengers is a dwarf, but his character is actually put to good use, as he frequently guesses the course of the narrative through sheer intelligence. Buñuel recycles many of the actors from his prior films, and everyone except Conchita seems to feel natural and at home in the movie as a result. There are some bizarre techniques used, as when a single lit candle suddenly illuminates an entire room or when a compression telephoto lens renders Conchita’s poor neighborhood and a series of background skyscrapers in the distance equally vivid and in focus.
For the most part, though, the filmmaking remains invisible until the end, as in Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty. After the flashback intercutting ends, and Conchita and Mathieu exit the train in Paris, they come to a mall scene filmed with a low depth of field so that only the two of them are in focus. They stop and look at a woman in a store window stitching up a torn, bloody, and dirty wedding garment. Though she does not appear to notice them watching, the camera shifts to her “point of view” from inside the glass window. Music plays and the characters’ dialogue is rendered inaudible as Conchita appears to antagonize him once again with her words. They leave the window and the camera cuts to the same low depth of field shot as before while the characters walk away with their backs to us. Suddenly, a terrorist bombing occurs and the frame is filled with smoke and fire; the characters are presumably dead.
Buñuel was apparently inspired to present literally the quotation by Andre Breton: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” Throughout the film, terrorist bombings by the Revolutionary Army of the Baby Jesus occur at random, without any relevance to the narrative. I’m not sure what this adds, exactly, but I can’t imagine the film without it any more so than I can imagine Conchita being played by only one actress (apparently a last minute decision as one of the actresses was getting on Buñuel’s nerves). Both elements add a self-referential quality to the film that the editing and camerawork deliberately fail to establish. There’s something uncannily omniscient about experiencing the prospect of random death among characters in a film. The same goes for our ability to recognize the two Conchitas in a way that Mathieu – by way of the conventions established by the world of the film – cannot.