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Double Take: Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire – Blu-ray review

September 5, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Women, eh? Fernando Rey can’t seem to tell that his would-be lover is two entirely different people – but then, what else is certain?

That Obscure Object Of Desire 1977 Luis Bunuel

That Obscure Object Of Desire
(Luis Bunuel, 1977)

Aside from being the last film by cinema’s greatest surrealist filmmaker, That Obscure Object Of Desire is famous for two things.  The first is the casting of two actresses (raven-haired ice queen Carole Bouquet and voluptuous Ángela Molina) as Conchita, the titular phantom running rings around Fernando Rey’s Mateo.  The second is that the idea only occurred to Luis Buñuel when filming had already got underway with a single actress who couldn’t deliver the ambiguity the director craved.

The obvious question is this: would this be as successful a film without Bouquet and Molina sharing the central role?  Chances are, it’s still be a treat.  Like most late Buñuel, this is a film of understated elegance, its pin-sharp decor captured in unobtrusive long takes that glide across rooms with the actors.  It’s the definition of bourgeois cinema, all the better to savage the certainties of that style.  Like The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, normality is interrupted by a variety of unwelcome intruders, from a mouse caught in a trap to a Greek chorus of terrorists detonating bombs or mowing down civilians in the street.

Such rupture catches the sexual frustration of Mateo, himself an unexploded bomb man who spends the whole film wanting to go off but can’t convince his ‘lover’ to push the detonator.  Much rests on Fernando Rey’s barely-concealed rage, his dapper appearance increasingly unable to disguise the spasms of longing coursing through his body.  That Obscure Object Of Desire is obviously Mateo’s story – to the point where anybody could have been cast as Conchita and it’d probably work.  Yet the original actress (reportedly Maria Schneider) proved a disaster (perhaps the star of Last Tango In Paris brought too much baggage, and didn’t convince as a virgin?), forcing Buñuel to deliver one last twisted flourish.

Bouquet is glacial and aloof; Molina curvaceous and flirtatious – yet Buñuel conspicuously avoids the obvious barometer of having each actress play a specific mood.  Instead, he opts for democracy.  Each actress takes turns, regardless of whether the character is blowing hot and cold, meaning there’s a constant slipperiness as to motive.  Misogynists would say: that’s what women are like. Everybody else would say: that’s what everyone is like.  It’s such an obvious point (and such a fundamental aspect of performance) that it takes a bravura piece of Brechtian stunt casting to really draw attention to it.

And with it, you start to question what else isn’t real.  That Obscure Object Of Desire is a film full of dualities – from the flashback structure, to the twin city setting (Paris and Seville), to the gag about left- and right-wing terrorists joining forces to really confuse people.  If you’re really up to speed on your European actors, it’s worth noting that Rey was dubbed by Michel Piccolo.  Buñuel hides nothing, yet absolutely nothing in this film is certain.

That Obscure Object Of Desire is released on Blu-ray on 10th September as part of the Studio Canal Collection.  Impressive extras include retrospective interviews with Carole Bouquet and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière.

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