Monday, January 11, 2021

Reeling Backward: "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977)


I've adored much of Luis Buñuel's filmography, from his early days of silent film surrealism with partner Salvador Dali to his mid-century work on everything from little Spanish-language art films to a writer of Hollywood mainstream fare like "Robinson Crusoe." But I can't say I have any great ardor for his final film, "That Obscure Object of Desire," which I'd been meaning to catch up with for years.

It's now pretty universally hailed as a masterpiece with a 100% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes (though not for long after I link this review).

If this was a comedy -- which it is in some ways -- I'd call it a one-joke movie. It's a pretty good joke, but it's hard to stretch that out to almost two hours. After about the third repetition of the same  dynamic, I no longer felt sympathy or anger for the characters but simply wanted to throw things at them. 

In a lot of ways it feels like the parable of the frog and the scorpion, with the lesson being that people are unable to change their intrinsic nature. This is true for beasts but not men, who can at least recognize their quandary and take steps to alter course before it results in their destruction.

You may know the basic story: a rich older French man falls for an 18-year-old Spanish dancer, who strings him along with protestations of her love but refuses to have sex with him. Many descriptions and reviews of the movie have incorrectly stated this is because of her religious beliefs, but Conchita states quite clearly on a number of occasions that she does not share her mother's faith.

She's just a terrible person, or a clueless one, or possibly deranged. Buñuel, who wrote the script with Jean-Claude Carrière, inspired by a book by Pierre Louÿs, goes out of his way to tease us with varying interpretations of her motivations. Her moods seem to shift abruptly with no reasoning behind it, like a capricious zephyr that has blown through the story.

This extends to the casting of two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, in the role of Conchita. There doesn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to who will show up -- sometimes one actresses carries a whole sequence, but on a few occasions they will actually swap in the middle of a scene.

This struck most observers as novel and amazing back in 1977, but to these eyes more than four decades on it just feels like a stunt... and one that doesn't work particularly well. It operates mainly for Conchita to seem remote and indecipherable to us, more a filmmaker's muse than a living, breathing woman.

Fernando Rey plays Mathieu, the frustrated lover, who keeps going back to Conchita over and over again so she can refuse him, like Lucy pulling the football on Charlie Brown. They first meet when she is hired as a maid in his Paris mansion, though it's soon clear she has no experience or enthusiasm at being a domestic. 

Instead, Mathieu essentially tries to buy his way into her graces, giving money and favors to her and her mother (María Asquerino), who are nearly penniless. Compounding the issue is that Conchita works itinerantly as a flamenco dancer, model or other odd jobs that she soon drops because, as she admits, she really doesn't like to work.

It seems like she's been waiting all her life for someone like Mathieu to come along, and now that he has she's determined to lure him in with promises of her flesh, only to refuse to close the deal. In several scenes she goes to bed with him and allows him to fondle her bare breasts, but even goes so far as to wear a chastity corset around her loins so he can only go so far. (Apparently, Mathieu doesn't keep any scissors in the house.)

Generally speaking, Bouquet plays Conchita as more mysterious and beguiling, while Molina's stretches of the character take place when she shows a more fiery and assertive attitude. I also noticed Molina takes over whenever the character is required to dance, including a stint in the nude for tourists that enrages Mathieu.

The film plays out with a framing story, which is that Mathieu is riding a train after having finally dumped Conchita for good (or so he thinks), even emptying a pail of water over her head as she tries to board the coach. He then relates the tale of his cursed romance with several of the other passengers, including a little person (dwarf, in the parlance of the day) who is a psychologist. 

(Buñuel's lifelong fascination with variations in the human form, including deformities and a fetish for freakishness, would probably be seen as "problematic" these days.)

Mathieu occasionally meets with his brother, a government magistrate, for fancy lunches where he relates his troubles with Conchita, and the brother -- who is an important man but appears to be spooging off his wealthy sibling for posh meals -- advises him to stop making a fool of himself, which of course he can't do.

Rey was about 60 when the movie came out, which I'm guessing is supposed to be about the same age as his character, a widower whose wife died seven years earlier. Rey is no great screen beauty -- short, a little on the stout side, with droopy basset hound eyes and half a head of kinky hair arranged in an obvious combover to cover the balding stretches. So it's hard to understand what Conchita sees in him other than his money.

Rey is probably best remembered by American audiences for his role as the slippery villain in "The French Connection" and its sequel, and seems to embody a certain French cultural archetype: the privileged gentleman poof.

The film also plays against a backdrop of terrorist attacks happening, executed by shadowy fictional groups of various ideological makeup. The encounters become increasing invasive in the story, starting as news stories to a shooting that happens right outside their apartment, to Mathieu's taxi being held up and stolen (with no attempt to rob the obviously wealthy man inside, for some reason) to the couple apparently dying in a marketplace bombing in the end.

I'm not sure what Buñuel is trying to say with this inclusion, other than a half-hearted commentary upon the chaotic times of the 1970s.

There's a scene late in the movie where Mathieu slaps Conchita around pretty hard, resulting in black eyes and a bloodied nose. Even if you feel like his anger toward her is warranted, it's hard to watch violence perpetrated against a woman in this context. When we first see her in the movie at the train station, she's wearing bandages on her face, and we already surmised that he was responsible.

Interestingly, it is while Mathieu is beating her that Conchita seems at her most desperate, saying that she only realizes now how much she loves him. Does she really mean this? Or is this just the nth iteration of her long con game of teasing and withholding?

"That Obscure Object of Desire" feels like it belongs to a time decades earlier, when sexuality was viewed as something that men experienced and women parried. I don't like it because Conchita isn't shown as a person, just a construct to frustrate the male protagonist's desires. Several times she accuses him of being incredibly naive, despite being four decades her senior. I found Mathieu more pathetic than interesting, and a whole movie is a long time to spend with someone like that.

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