That Obscure Object of Desire
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
That Obscure Object of Desire (French: Cet obscur objet du désir; Spanish: Ese oscuro objeto del deseo) is a 1977 film directed by the filmmaker Luis Buñuel. It depicts an unrequited love taking place in Spain and France amid a backdrop of terrorist insurgency. It is based on a French book by Pierre Louÿs entitled La Femme et le pantin, although many changes were made for the screenplay.
The movie begins with Mathieu (Aldo Rey) chartering a train from Seville to Paris; he is moving to escape a woman whose belongings – which include a pillow bloodied by a nosebleed and soiled panties – he destroys. A wealthy man is assassinated by a car bomb. As Mathieu's train is ready to depart he finds that he is being pursued by a bruised and bandaged woman (Conchita). From the train he pours a bucket of water over her head. He believes this deters her, but she sneaks aboard the train. The abusive act is witnessed by his fellow coach-cabin passengers who include a mother and her young daughter, a judge who is coincidentally a friend of Mathieu's cousin, and a psychologist with achondroplasia. They inquire about his motivation for such an act and he then explains the history of his relationship with Conchita, depicted in flashbacks. Conchita vowed to remain a virgin until marriage, yet she tantalized him with sexual promises, but never allowed Mathieu to satisfy his lust for her. Eventually, we learn, she dances nude for tourists, and appears to have sex with a random young man in full view of Mathieu. She explains that this sex was "pretend" -- intended to demonstrate her independence from Mathieu's financial support. Matthieu then beats her, which explains her bandaged and bruised state earlier in the film (as well as the bloody pillow).
The atmosphere is one of a man who fundamentally misunderstands a woman. Conchita adores Mathieu, but Mathieu can only perceive that she is playing games with him. At the same time, Conchita's ways of showing her love are ambiguous at best.
The fellow train passengers are satisfied with this story as the explanation of violence by Mathieu. Conchita reappears from hiding on the train and dumps a bucket of water on Mathieu. After the train deboards the couple is seen walking together, arm-in-arm, enjoying themselves on the streets of Paris.
A public announcement is broadcast alerting of a "strange alliance of extreme leftist groups, including the P.O.P., the P.R.I.Q.U.E. and the R.U.T. with the... Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus... to sow a state of confusion in society." The announcement continues to explain that several right-wing groups intend to counterattack in this uprising. As the couple continues their walk they first see a seamstress in a shop window mending a bloody veil. They then appear to be having trouble once again. Suddenly they, apparently, become victims of a terrorist's bomb.
Veteran Spanish actor Fernando Rey (who frequently worked with Buñuel in his later years) plays Mathieu, but his voice is dubbed by Michel Piccoli.
The film is notable for the use of two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, in the role of Conchita. Many film critics believed this to be an intentional decision on the part of Buñuel based on his long-standing surrealist sensibilities, arguing that the odd use of casting highlighted the mercurial aspect of the character. The actresses sometimes share single scenes (for instance, Molina walks behind a curtain and Bouquet emerges a second later). Another suggested explanation is that Carole Bouquet walked out on the production; in other accounts Buñuel is said to have replaced her in the middle of the production because she would not take his direction. Originally the character of Conchita was only to be played by Maria Schneider, from Last Tango in Paris, but she objected to the nude scenes she'd have had to do in this picture.
Shocking to viewers worldwide in 1977, the film was not financially successful; however, it became a critical favorite, garnering prizes at various festivals..