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That Obscure Object of Desire: The Criterion Collection

Commonly referred to as the premiere surrealist in cinema, Luis Buñuel surprises the viewer with his last movie, That Obscure Object of Desire, released in 1977 — it's easy to follow, funny, and erotic. But then, "surrealist" is perhaps too limiting a label to burden Buñuel with. He worked with some of the best European actors, including Bulle Ogier and Catherine Deneuve. He often adapted some of the most interesting, if obscure, erotic novels of the century. He was able to balance political satire with social protest, mocking not just the causes he hated but the ones he liked as well. His themes and images are wide-ranging but surprisingly consistent: insects, shoes, dwarfs, beasts of burden, voyeurism, windows, hands, fruit, knives, firearms, pianos, Pandora's boxes, sewing, dinner parties, and almost anything to do with the church. Buñuel was able to work almost infinite variations on his obsessions, and his last film is not so much a summing up of a career as yet another reshuffling of his themes. That Obscure Object of Desire concerns Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy businessman who ends up in a tormenting and comic relationship with the elusive Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina in a dual role). In a framing device, he tells this tale of off-beat romance to a compartment full of strangers on a train, all of whom more or less ignore the terrorist acts that afflict the city. The story comes from an erotic novel by Pierry Louys that has been filmed several times before, once with Marlene Dietrich, and another time with Brigette Bardot. Buñuel's variation is to use two women to play one character. Born of necessity when the first actress hired didn't work out, the idea works perfectly for Buñuel's theme concerning the variety of human personality. Conchita is many women; like Whitman, she "contains multitudes." Buñuel does subtly segregate his Conchitas, however. Bouquet, an elegant and aristocratic woman who later went on to a successful international modeling career, tends to appear when Buñuel is emphasizing the delicate and innocent and, dare one say, frigid Conchita. Molina — darker, duskier, robust — appears when Buñuel wants us to see the sensual and seductive, even the outright slutty, Conchita. The Criterion Collection has done a commendable job with That Obscure Object of Desire. The disc offers a new anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) mastered from a 35mm interpositive, while the monaural audio (DD 1.0) is from a restored soundtrack mastered from a 35mm magnetic audio track. Newly translated English subtitles are available, as is an optional dubbed English soundtrack. Supplements are not plentiful, but are solid. Among them are three excerpts from Jacques de Baroncelli's 1929 silent adaptation of La Femme el le Pantin, a.k.a. The Woman and the Puppet; a lengthy video interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who has a long and fascinating career himself; a Carrière filmography which fully lays out the vastness and variety of his career; a 16-page insert that features an essay on Buñuel by film scholar William Rothman; and a delightfully evasive interview with Buñuel derived from a book of interviews with the director. There's also the somewhat unusual, but also perhaps even inaccurate, theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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