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THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (Cet obscur objet du désir) (director/writer: Luis Buñuel; screenwriters: from the novel La Femme Et Le Pantin by Pierre Louys/Jean-Claude Carrière; cinematographer: Edmond Richard; editor: Helene Plemianniko; cast: Fernando Rey (Mathieu), Carole Bouquet (Conchita), Angela Molina (Conchita), Julien Bertheau (Judge), André Weber (Valet), Piéral, Milena Vukotic (Woman in train), Ellen Bahl (Manolita), Pieral (Psychologist); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Serge Silberman; Criterion Collection, The; 1977-France/Spain-in French with English subtitles)
“The swan song film for the legendary Spanish filmmaker.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The swan song film for the legendary Spanish filmmaker, the 77-year-old Luis Buñuel (“The Young One”/ “Tristana”/”Viridiana”), who bases his 30th film on the 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louys. It was filmed many times before: that includes the silent in France in 1929 by Jacques De Baroncelli with Conchita Montenegro, the most notable version until Buñuel’s 1935 Josef von Sternberg version with Marlene Dietrich entitled The Devil Is a Woman, and again it was filmed in 1959 by Julien Duvivier as La Femme et le Pantin–starring Brigitte Bardot.

The film had a gimmicky touch, the casting of two women–the classy Carole Bouquet and the saucy Angela Molina–in the role of the 18-year-old Conchita, a beautiful but elusive Spanish temptress who becomes the object of obsession for the wealthy older sexist Parisian businessman Mathieu (Fernando Rey, whose voice was dubbed by French actor Michel Piccoli). The casting decision was made after Maria Schneider quit or was fired after three weeks’ shooting. The beauty of it is that Mathieu doesn’t notice the switch, as he can never see the one he professes to love.

The story is told in flashback, as Mathieu rides first-class on a train from Seville to Madrid and then onto Paris. He tells fellow passengers, a busybody French woman (Milena Vukotic) with a bratty teenage daughter and younger son, a know-it-all dwarf psychologist (Pieral), and a respected French magistrate (Julien Bertheau) the long story of why he spilled a bucket of water on the woman running after the train–who turns out to be his former maid Conchita.

The straightforward tale of obsessive love tells of how Mathieu fell under the spell of his deceitful maid Conchita, who pretends to be a virgin and pumps money out of him as she builds his hopes that some day he’ll get some nooky. Meanwhile in the background there’s a series of terrorist’s attacks (car bombings and kidnappings) and a young musical group that know the maid and follow her around. The bourgeois Mathieu is clueless that Conchita is playing him and has no idea what the revolutionary groups are about, as throughout one of the groups is called the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus and is responsible for a series of attacks on the establishment–something Mathieu takes as only a minor inconvenience.

This film, with a healthy dose of black humor, recallsBuñuel’s earlier works that were concerned with the blend of sex and violence as revolutionary acts, as it deftly tells its moralistic tale about a pretty cock teasing woman who sadistically drives a horny old goat insane over his frustrated desire. When he can’t conquer her through his sexual appeal, he obnoxiously tries to physically overcome her and then win her heart over with gifts to her needy mother and then to her. The fun is seeing this haughty ruling class figure get his come-uppance and brought to his knees begging for sex. After he gives her a house, she reneges on her promise to screw him and instead fucks on the floor her young musical lover while he’s forced in humiliation to watch behind the locked iron gate.

The satire shows a decadent society that’s troubled by political unrest, sexual power plays (all the men seemingly denounce women as “sacks of excrement!”) and moral bankruptcy. It ends on a surreal note as a bomb goes off as the couple reconciles, leaving us with the impression there’s no sound answers to the mystery of romance.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”