That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

A brilliant satire of the erotic romance, That Obscure Object of Desire is simultaneously a ridicule of the base human relationship being elevated to art and a classy film of its own. The annuls of time have solidified Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel the title of film artists and That Obscure Object of Desire would be his last feature, and  about as smart a last feature a man could hope to have.

The setup is similar to any romance. The man, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), meets the woman, Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina), the man fancies the woman, and the man proceeds to try to bed the women for the rest of the film. Oh wait, that’s not what romances are about? They’re about love and companionship and happiness and all that? Or are they?

Buñuel comedic farce is rooted in the notion that our romantic portrayals may just be about sex. Mathieu as a character can be summarized as such: the man with a penis for a brain. His “love” for Conchita exists insofar as he fancies he can bed the young beauty, a setup for a number of comedic farces where Conchita leads him on in believing they will have sex and then finding ways to get out of having sex.

Also, by casting Fernando Rey in the role, Buñuel exposes the inherent sexist quality of the romance genre. You can have a 60-year-old male lead, but the woman better be in her twenties and she better have a beautiful looking body. To exaggerate the fact, Luis Buñuel casts two young beautiful women to play the exact same role.

Both Carole Bouquet (who you might recognize from For Your Eyes Only) and Ángela Molina play the role of Conchita. There’s no explanation given for this and it’s made clear that they’re the exact same character, but it suggests that women in romance are an interchangeable object of pursuit for the man. There’s nothing specific about Conchita as an individual that attracts Mathieu, it is simply that she has become the titular desirable object that eludes him, the object he must own and possess.

By casting two different women in the same role, Luis Buñuel brings in another satirical element by having her be the woman who basically is ever changing and, in some ways, everything. The audiences understanding of this women changes and diverges from scene to scene.  It’s not that she’s changed, but that she is simply a stand in for all the spectrums of women that exist, a character that slides up and down the spectrum of woman.

All of this is packaged around Mathieu relating this story to a group of travelers and sketching it as a romance that spans over a swath of locations and times. Luis Buñuel uses this to satirize the conceit of coincidence in romance, the fact that somehow there seems to be some force that pushes the couple together.  These “coincidences” become more and more unlikely until one character points out that they can hardly be coincidences.

Luis Buñuel brings together these jarring and inexplicable conceits in order to demonstrate the romance is not quite the high-class artistic affair it masquerades as. In the process, he makes a satire so smart, so sweeping and so skilled that his satire of art becomes its own kind of art: a wonderful, raucous and delightfully biting piece of art. The kind of art a revolutionary can get behind.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • Great job on this review. I haven’t seen the film, but I need to go check it out because if it is half as good as you make it sound, then it may be perfect for me. These romance films do always seem to play off the same tropes, and to find a film that intentionally pokes at them sounds like a lot of fun.

    • I found it quite funny and it is a film I’d recommend. It’s more of absurdest humor if that makes a difference.

  • I had this film recorded on tape some years back along with a couple of Bunuel films that I was able to see earlier this year. Unfortunately, I no longer have a working VCR and I also no longer have the Sundance Channel which would show this film. I’m eager to see it because it is Bunuel whose work I like based on what I’ve seen so far.

    • I’m not sure if you have Netflix instant, but that’s where I ended up watching it. If you like Bunuel, it pretty much goes without saying this is a must see for you.

  • Love this one. I’ve always liked Bunuel’s 70s work, from TRISTANA to this. DISCREET CHARM is probably my favourite Bunuel of all time. I’ve also heard a lot about THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY but it continues to elude me. Great review.

    • This is my first Bunuel, but I’ve already seen another one and I plan on checking out more in the near future. He’s made a ton of films I’ve heard of before but didn’t realize were from him. Looking forward to watching them.