Cet obscur objet du desir

(That Obsure Object of Desire, France/Spain - 1977)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina
Genre: Surrealism/Drama
Director: Luis Bunuel
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere & Luis Bunuel based on Pierre Louys novel La femme et le pantin
Cinematography: Edmond Richard
Composer: Richard Wagner (but none to speak of)
Runtime: 102 minutes

"I kissed you to thank you and because I like you. You kissed me without love. I know what you want. I amuse you, you like me…but that's all. You can do what you want with other girls. I'll give you some names if you want, but I am I!" - Conchita

Conchita is a character defined by her desire to maintain her freedom and individuality. Ironically, when Maria Schneider dropped out, Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere went back to their idea of having two beautiful young actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina who were both starting out their careers, play Conchita. This bizarre tactic leads us to want to figure out their reasons behind this odd casting decision. If there is one, I'd guess it's to show the on and off nature men perceive women as having. That said, I don't think there is one other than that Bunuel and Carriere decided to be jokers. There are some differences between what scenes the actresses do, but aside from Molina doing the dancing scenes, nothing notable. As far as their personalities go, Bouquet generally plays Conchita as more inaccessible and virginal while Molina is wilder and more playful. In the end though, there's a lot of crossover and their looks are far more different than their personalities, although Mathieu never notices the slightest difference in either.

Although Mathieu is only played by Fernando Rey, his personality is actually far more clearly defined. When he's not with Conchita in the present, he pretends he doesn't love her anymore by telling others she's the worst woman on earth, more to convince himself of course. When he's not with Conchita in the flashbacks, he speaks so selflessly talking about how he'd do anything for her and would ask nothing of her. When he's with Conchita, he's as selfish and horny as they come, satisfied with nothing less than having sex with her.

One reason Mathieu is more clearly defined is most of the film is done in flashback as he recounts the sordid details of their relationship to the kind of strangers you'd expect to find on a Bunuel train, including a midget psychologist. I find Mathieu to be the more reprehensible of the two lovers, although I know others disagree, but the film forces us to identify with him because he's the central character. As we mainly see Conchita through his eyes, his memories, she remains obscure to us although not nearly to the degree she does to him. She is always representative of something, but more a feeling, emotion, type, or personality; she's a symbol rather than a real person. He is not capable of understanding her, and while we probably think we do, one has to remember that our perception of her is obscured through Mathieu's filter. That said, the film is very well balanced and multidimensional even though Mathieu in the present puts his slant on flashbacks before and/or after we see them.

The Mathieu and Conchita characters are not very original, precisely because they are not intended to be. Mathieu is the wealthy old man trying to buy the love of the attractive woman who is less than half his age. The film isn't really a satire or a farce, but there's a certain absurdity to it all. Bunuel explores his common theme that people are selfish hypocrites that can't free themselves from their early emotional programming. To Bunuel certain things are funny and ridiculous simply because they can't be helped.

Bunuel doesn't see himself as above the rest of humanity. Perhaps that's why he's able to present these situations comically, he can laugh at himself as just another silly human being with odd tendencies and fetishes that hold meaning only for him. One key supporting character is a psychologist played by midget Pieral. He makes all the easy deductions that actually impress the other passengers on the train, but in the end he has no answer for Mathieu's problem. What the train scenes show is the double standard that exists in acceptable behavior, with psychologist, judge, woman, and child all agreeing with Mathieu's dastardly tactics because of his illogic that he paid therefore he's owed sexual favors. The only smarts we actually see from the psychologist is he knows to get out of the way as quick as possible.

Bunuel's comedy is not of the traditional clown or punchline variety. He takes jabs at his characters, especially the bourgeois, by putting them through situations that show how nonsensical their actions and lifestyle are. He uses all the stereotypes and conceptions about them, although he does it with wit and originality, and simply has them play the scenes straight. The scenes themselves are serious yet painful for the characters because they are trapped by their own personality and lifestyle. This allows them to register emotionally for the viewer, while at the same time we regularly take a step back and laugh at these people with Bunuel. Of the many arguments, by far my favorite is the reason behind Mathieu's desire to have sex with Conchita.

Conchita: Why do you want to make love to me?
Mathieu: To be closer to you, because I love you.
Conchita: I love you, too, and yet I don't want to make love to you. We're together. I let you hold me. I caress you. You have my legs, my mouth, my breasts. Why do you want to make love?
Mathieu: Because it's normal, it's natural. People who are in love make love.
Conchita: So you think that I'm not normal?

One measure of the originality of Bunuel and Carriere's version is that it was the 5th of 6 films based on Pierre Louys' novel La Femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet), yet it comes off as pure Bunuel and Carriere in every way. It's about class inequality, sexual politics, the absurdity of the bourgeois, and so on. It has the kind of touches you'd expect from surrealist Bunuel like pure virginal Bouquet having a white handbag that mysteriously becomes a black handbag when the switch during the scene is made to the devious tease Molina and is then perhaps merged into brown when Conchita douses Mathieu.

The earlier version you may have seen is Josef von Sternberg's good 1935 film The Woman Is a Devil with Marlene Dietrich. While von Sternberg, along with fellow German Ernst Lubitsch, were the probably the peskiest directors for the censors of their time, a director of his reputation working in France in the 1970's for the same producer that fully backed him (Serge Silberman) could pretty much do what he wanted. Much of what makes the main characters strongly dislikable can be attributed to scenes von Sternberg couldn't film like Mathieu trying to rape Conchita but being unable to rip off her chastity belt, Conchita dancing fully nude for strangers when she wouldn't go bottomless for Mathieu, and Mathieu brutally beating Conchita. If Belle de jour proved Bunuel could make a great erotic film while being discrete, That Obscure Object should prove he'd rather make a great film on similar enough subjects without having to be.

In spite of the violent and vile nature of the relationship, the film is love story. It's far more about power and obsession though. Mathieu & Conchita's relationship is never a good one because both are hell bent on being in control. Conchita is in control most of the time because Mathieu has always bought everything; it's the only tactic he knows. By not giving in to money, or in some cases taking it and not delivering what Mathieu believes he's owed for it, Conchita keeps the ball in her court.

A big question is whether Conchita is doing this for love of Mathieu or love of money. If we believe what Conchita says, Mathieu doesn't have anything she wants. What she wants from him is something he's incapable of, to love her as a person and respect her individuality. Mathieu is dead set on screwing her, so much so that he doesn't notice anything about her. It's natural for the viewer to expect her to ultimately be some kind of femme fatale that takes him for all he's worth though. We are cynical, especially with so many movies showing women in this light since sex=bad. When we see a young woman that "could have anyone" with a rich man that's more than twice her age, especially one that treats her as poorly as Mathieu, it usually comes down to money. Her being trapped is another option, but her prison is she's so bent on making this man that by her terms has no concept of the meaning of the word love her. Your opinion of Conchita will hinge on whether you believe she's maintaining her virginity for the sake of their relationship or because she's a tormentor. Mathieu refuses to marry her ("If I marry her, I'll be completely helpless"), so their relationship should dissolve once they've had sex a few times. On the other hand, Conchita is constantly the taker because she always makes Mathieu pursue her.

"If you had told me what you wanted, I would no doubt have given it to you," says Mathieu. Mathieu complains that Conchita runs off rather than confronting him and stating "I can't be bought," even though she essentially told him that right away and several times throughout. One big difference between Mathieu and Conchita is Mathieu wants things direct, while Conchita is a romantic. Mathieu has no imagination or interest in Conchita; he simply needs to know what she wants so he can get what he wants. Conchita wants to show Mathieu what she wants, so she keeps leading him on and stringing him along in hopes that he'll take a real interest in her and learn to love her. In this regard, it's not like Conchita has been obscure. At one point she tells him, "If I gave in you wouldn't love me anymore." Mathieu is just clueless and oblivious.

Bunuel's final film could be said to be the same thing over and over. After the setup, it's essentially a series of sexual advances by Mathieu that fail and, while not always being the specific cause, are ultimately behind their breakups. Where the obsession comes in is that Mathieu appears rich enough to buy several gorgeous love slaves, yet all he can think about is screwing the one that seemingly doesn't care about his money and won't put out for anybody. Conchita believes she's fallen for a kind old man that will care for her in ways that idiots her own age couldn't. Neither seems willing to give in, to "lose", no matter what it costs them. Thus, while their destructive relationship continually escalates in negative ways that bring it to an abrupt halt, they always get back together. It's through these varied scenarios that the characters are developed to the point that we have enough to base our theories on them though. However, it's also through them that the film grows increasingly complex. It's far more a film about asking questions than answering them, but that makes sense because the two characters are incompatible and the only logical answer might be to call a halt to it for good, which is something they will always refuse to do.

A hilariously named terrorist group R.A.I.J. (Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus) wreaks havoc throughout France by causing various explosions. The fact that Mathieu and Conchita are never really bothered or distracted by their actions even though they are within feet of them shows their selfishness and the power of their obsession. That their relationship mirrors this terrorist activity in many ways perhaps shows that their behavior is a symptom of the world they were born into and have always known. They don't worry about the agony and demolition. Instead, they accept it as their way of life, and like terrorists they continually escalate it. Mathieu's response to a car bombing as he gets in the car pretty much says it all, "Damn it…here, too. Terrorists again. Quick, turn around…we're going to be late."

Both parties can be wickedly cruel toward one another, both in the same way like dumping a bucket of water over each others head (the one time Conchita chases Mathieu) and in different ways like Mathieu having Conchita deported or Conchita "having sex" with another man "in front of him." The fact that they are at least somewhat turned on by this is established early on when Conchita has Mathieu robbed a knifepoint, but he just brushes it aside saying "it was the most pleasant of hold-ups." Their problem is not lack of love for one another, but that their definitions of it don't correspond and they are totally uncompromising. While the situations are consistently different, the film is one chess match after another in the truest sense. Same board, same pieces, same goals, and same result of the board being knocked off the table only to have them start fresh the next time like nothing ever happened.


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