That Obscure Object of Desire

I was faced with further evidence of my absent-mindedness when I realised half-way into this film that the female antagonist was being played by two actresses. The device was an unplanned development (cf. my note on Discreet Charm) – Buñuel resorted to the idea after his first choice of actress balked at the sex scene. It works because it underlines the theme of the story, which is the incomprehensibility of the objects we desire. Conchita literally shapeshifts in front of an increasingly irritable Mathieu (played by Fernando Ray and voiced by Michel Piccoli – both Buñuel favourites). She constantly blows hot and cold on his courtship, to the point where the film starts flirting with misogyny.

It avoids it partly because of the word 'object' in the title, and that aforementioned sex scene. When Conchita finally gets the keys to her own house, she locks Mathieu out of it. And to prove that she is an independent woman who has simply used her objectification against her oppressor, she makes love to her handsome boyfriend on the floor in front of Mathieu's eyes. He tries to walk away, but he can't resist coming back to gaze on his desire. Not to get too David Thomson, but if there is a reason this film is in his top three, it's because of this scene – an encapsulation of how the moving image has been harnessed to project our desires back at us, so that we look on, spellbound.

Conchita flits between such statements of her independence and professions of devotion to Mattieu. She even finds an explanation for this final outrage against Mathieu's pride (it was a test of his constancy, apparently). She's either a mad lover or a manipulative witch. Either way, we can't get rid of her. And would we really want to?

This little romcom is played out against a background of increasingly violent terrorist attacks. Like in Discreet Charm, there's the suggestion that the quotidian complications of bourgeois life paper over the cracks of class warfare. Jean-Claude Carrière (Buñuel's co-writer on most of his last films) says Buñuel was increasingly paranoid about a collapse in civility. He predicted that even family relations will become mediated by terrorism – siblings bickering with bombs rather than words. Buñuel is known for being a scourge of bourgeois pieties, but I wonder if in this film he goes some way towards repudiating his earlier, revolutionary self, and making peace with the hypocrisies of his class. That last shot of a woman mending the fabric of a blood-splattered dress seems to suggest so.

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