Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet Obscur Objet Du Désir) (France / Spain, 1977), is an adaptation of the 1898 novel La Femme Et Le Pantin (The Woman And The Puppet) by Pierre Louÿs, which served as an effective vehicle for both Marlene Dietrich (Von Sternberg’s The Devil Is A Woman) and Brigitte Bardot (Julien Duvivier’s The Female). Once again he collaborated with Jean-Claude Carrière on the screenplay, and the basic narrative of the book is left intact. But Buñuel and Carrière nonetheless put their own irreverently surreal cast on material that had already taken some politically incorrect liberties, even in 1898.
Buñuel regular Fernando Rey is Mathieu, a wealthy, well-groomed man-about-town who becomes obsessed with a poor but pretty Spanish working girl named Conchita. He relates the story of the relationship (in flashbacks) to the other passengers of his train coach, who have just watched him dump a bucket of water on the pursuing Conchita’s head before embarking. Mathieu, who regards himself as a devoted and generous find for any woman whom he might take a fancy to, has treated Conchita to enormous amounts of attention and indulgence. Conchita, nonetheless, torments him with varying and escalating degrees of tease and denial, imploring him to not see her as a possession but as another person with her own full life and desires. By the time Mathieu boards this train, he’s seemingly done with her.
Conchita first appears as a chambermaid in Mathieu’s household, inexperienced but earnest. That evening, Mathieu wastes no time in conveying his affections towards his strikingly lovely new employee. She demurs and they part, minutes later, on seemingly flirty good terms, but Mathieu discovers the next day that Conchita has quit. Months later, while languishing in Switzerland, he encounters her again; she’s touring with some musician friends (as a dancer) and they’ve just been stiffed by their agent. He helps them out with some cash (after being oddly pranked by them), and learns where Conchita lives in Paris. He visits often, ingratiating himself with Conchita’s mother and offering them favor upon kind favor. He eventually asks Conchita’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage, and offers her a large financial incentive. But Conchita again refuses, feeling that Mathieu is buying off Mom instead of earning her own affections patiently and honestly, and disappears. A few months later, Mathieu and his magistrate brother Edouard (Julien Bertheau) are having lunch at a posh restaurant and discover that Conchita is the recently-hired coat-check girl. Once again reunited, Conchita agrees to live with Mathieu at his country estate.
Here, at roughly the halfway point of the film, is a good spot to assess the larger context. Mathieu‘s Paris, and greater Europe for that matter, is plagued by terrorists blowing up cars, shops and restaurants, shooting dignitaries down in the streets and bombing planes. The insurgents are a vague mish-mash of lone wolves, anarchists, religious extremists and other various small groups, all with fearsome acronyms like the P.O.P., the G.R.I.F. and the O.U.T., and all allegedly in the service of the R.A.O.I.J., the Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. Mathieu wields enough privilege and wealth to avoid most of this, but it’s an insistent background. Conchita is a fascinating character made even more complex by the famous stroke of Buñuel and Carrière’s of casting two separate actresses in the one role. Carole Bouquet – French, tall, willowy and wry, making her feature debut, seems more elegant, and somewhat regretful at denying Mathieu his way with her. Ángela Molina, an earthy and cheery Spanish actress with a bit more experience, is more extroverted and engaging, but also more directly defiant. Neither performer is used for particular consistent purposes, though – Buñuel and Carrière alternate them almost at random, a few times within the very same scene. Mathieu’s having to contend with two Conchitas adds extra complexity, and extra boundaries to negotiate. But Buñuel the surrealist is far more interested in letting created associations reverberate than in setting up specific symbols or allegorical contexts. The film is full of visual non-sequiturs: mouse traps, pet baby pigs, a fly in a cocktail. A seamstress repairs an embroidery tear on a blood-streaked piece of fabric, and there are recurring guest appearances by a burlap bag – sackcloth, perhaps?
Mathieu’s country estate is quite nice, but terrorists have disabled the nearby power station. The candlelit evening would seem to be conducive to mutual romance, and Mathieu is delighted that he can finally be intimate and alone with Conchita. But Conchita is adamant about protecting her chastity; he can be as intimate as he likes, but she won’t surrender that. (“Just wait a little while longer. You know I’m yours and yours alone. What more do you want?”) Days go by, they spend lovely recreational days together in Paris, but she still insists on remaining chaste. One night after being turned down again, Mathieu discovers that Conchita’s musician friend has been sleeping over with her in the other room after being tossed out of his hotel. (“But don’t worry, we slept back to back – exactly as I do with you!”). Mathieu throws her out, but he’s irretrievably smitten. He has Edouard use his connections to get Conchita and her mother deported back to Seville, but he then pursues them there anyway. He becomes more obsessive, more pos-sessive, and she continues to profess her love while making him jump through more increasingly demeaning hoops. “I belong to no one, and I am my most precious possession.”
Mathieu is the protagonist here, and in seeing the relationship through his eyes we’re naturally sympathetic to his frustrations concerning Conchita. But Buñuel, throughout the film, is just as much on Conchita’s side, and is clearly admiring of her self-protective tendencies; there’s no evidence that Mathieu wouldn’t toss her over if given his full indulgences. It’s why she won’t ask him for money; as long as he sees it as a means to his end, he’ll always give it to her anyway. He’ll pay her and Mom’s rent, she can have a room on his country estate, he’ll buy her a small villa in Seville. She meets his frustrations with cruelty, and vice-versa; at one point he strikes her, repeatedly, and, face bloodied, she responds with “Now I know you love me.” Conchita’s reaction may distress us these days (it distressed some back then), but it’s true to Louÿs’ book – after this episode, it’s definitely her pursuing him now – but Buñuel uses this moment to obscure things further; is this another manipulative tactic, or is she truly relenting? Has he done enough for her by now to earn her acquiescence? The privileged Mathieu never changes throughout the entire story, but Conchita has no choice but to strive, adapt, and oftentimes submit, in order to keep a roof over her head, food in her mouth, and love in her modest life. By the time we end up back on that train, though, near the end, it’s pretty clear what each of them know they need, and how pointlessly, even maliciously, they’re willing to treat each other in order not to just admit that to each other. The terrorists are the least of our problems, some might say – just look what we do to each other. And Luis Buñuel has a good laugh at our expense, again…