Why I Love… #11: That Obscure Object Of Desire

Year: 1977

Director: Luis Bunuel

Stars: Fernando Rey (Mathieu), Carole Bouquet (Conchita), Angela Molina (Conchita)

Genre: Surreal Film / Drama / Romance

I re-watched That Obscure Object Of Desire today, spurred by an evening at the New Theatre which displayed two very different takes on the idea of physically embodying the different traits within one personality. Bunuel’s final film came to mind, in which one character, Conchita, is played by two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. They chop and change arbitrarily throughout. At one point swapping over midway through a scene.

It’s all Jeffrey Eugenides’ fault. In his excellent novel Middlesex (read it if you haven’t, read it again if you have), Eugenides makes the interesting choice of concealing the identity of one of his supporting characters. They are referred to only as the Obscure Object, the suggestion being that the character is based on someone who grew up to be quite famous. The Obscure Object in Middlesex directly references Bunuel’s film. Like Conchita, Eugenides’ character is the object of an obsession. And this film, whether intentionally or not, is a brilliant look at the irrational nature of obsession.

I came to this movie after reading Middlesex. The book had inspired me to seek it out. This proved difficult. It’s not widely available on a physical format. Indeed, I had to take the plunge and fork out for the 8-film box-set The Luis Bunuel Collection, though this has proved well-worth it, as the set also contains many of Bunuel’s great ‘late period’ films, such as Belle de Jour and The Phantom Of Liberty. That Obscure Object Of Desire remains my favourite movie of his that I have seen though. An enduring piece of surrealist cinema that is far more accessible than that label might suggest.

As is Bunuel’s style, it all takes place very matter-of-factly. Bunuel was not one for overly stylising his strange worlds. If anything though, this makes his leaps from reality all the more cutting. They take place in a familiar world, defying logic, and reminding us how frequently our lives conspire against good sense.

The film opens with regular Bunuel foil Fernando Rey, here named Mathieu, taking a trip by train from Seville to Paris. He causes a scene by tipping a bucket of water over the head of a girl on the platform. The fellow travellers in his compartment – including a midget psychologist – are very curious about why he did this, and so his tale of romantic obsession is presented in flashback.

Mathieu has become smitten by chambermaid Conchita, and alters his life repeatedly in desperate attempts to win her over. Just as Molina and Bouquet take turns portraying Conchita, so Conchita seems to back and forth over her attachment to Mathieu. She accepts him only to reject him, time and again, teasing him to frustration. What becomes clear however is not just the frustration in Mathieu, but the complex emotions within Conchita.

Even when arranging for him to be mugged, Conchita is not treating Mathieu badly out of a desire to hurt him; her contrariness is the method by which she expresses her love for him. What we have here, in essence, is an S&M relationship on an emotional level. Both parties are complicit in this cycle of romance and rejection. Mathieu revels in being subjugated. Conchita is thrilled by his persistence. And is it really that strange, that perverse? How many of us push away the very people we feel closest to?

There are many different interpretations to be made out of Bunuel’s choice to cast both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, the clearest being an attempt to embody the dualities of a person’s desires, or to represent that nature of obsession; so frequently the obsession itself is addictive, not the subject. But true to form, Bunuel’s explanation defies further examination. He merely claimed to have found it impossible to decide which actress to cast, so cast both. Bunuel’s cinema is pure surrealism. There is no point. Yet the beauty of it is that it can be examined on these levels. You can bring as much to it as you take away.

Other surreal elements bare this out. What, exactly, is the point of the recurring man carrying a sack? And the frequent acts of terrorism that punctuate the film, how do they compliment the narrative? These questions are harder to answer. My inability to pin-point answers to these questions does not hamper my enjoyment of the film though. Whether you are able to accept things like this will determine how open you’ll be to Bunuel’s work. I’ve always been partial to the surreal, so Bunuel has been a welcome discovery to me.

By the end of his train journey, by the end of his tale, Mathieu has forgiven Conchita again. They walk together knowing their fate is to repeat this cycle endlessly. That this is their relationship, and neither of them would change it for the world. I find the possibility of happiness in such strangeness comforting.

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