That Obscure Object of Desire
ART FILM OF THE WEEK
Fresh, earthy, and always original, Luis Buñuel’s final directorial outing is foremost known for both lead actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) playing the same role, Conchita.
Avant-garde to the core, Buñuel employs doppelganger trickery for Conchita’s tale, along with her comedic eroticism involving the middle-aged Mathieu played to perfection by Buñuel habitué Fernando Rey. Though the titular character is Conchita, this is a story recounted through Mathieu’s perspective as—while riding on a train to Madrid with an unlikely group of strangers who share his cabin—he tells of his detailed sordid past with the young woman.
In Mathieu’s vibrant flashbacks, Buñuel smoothly vacillates between actresses in such a manner that the inventive antic reads as strangely natural to the film itself. Both actresses convey the theme of the film’s title, as each emanates a truly “obscure” attraction best defined by that great “It” quality of “a strange magnetism that attracts both genders. Mathieu may be entirely too old for the preternatural lust he feels for Conchita, but her sexuality is indeed overwhelming and profoundly compelling.
Her tantalizing enticements followed by repulsion of the sexual act confuse Mathieu to no end. Buñuel sets up his characters as though they exist in a game of besting each other in order to gain superiority over the relationship (and the right to claim it as sexual, friendly, or even homicidal), which otherwise careens out of control. Conchita eventually accepts Mathieu’s sexual advances, only to reveal a leather chastity belt that further outrages the flustered Mathieu.
Every scene that depicts Mathieu breaking through Conchita’s elusiveness is emphasized by a series of rejections on the woman’s part to give herself fully to her would-be lover. “If I gave you what you want, you’d stop loving me,” Conchita explains. Though distraught by rejection of love, Mathieu continues the pursuit of the girl who haunts his every moment.
Buñuel’s doomed romance is a picturesque excursion through Europe, ravaging the viewer with playful temptation. Conchita becomes a saucy ecdysiast, giving her whole body to strangers while never giving in to the man she supposedly loves. This act of betrayal exacerbates Mathieu’s frustration. As despicable as she can sometimes be, Conchita, due to Buñuel’s subversive orchestration, will, nevertheless, forever be desirable in this luminous re-telling of Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (itself based on the Pierre Louÿs novel) that earned two Academy Award nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay).