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That Obscure Object of Desire: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, and Angela Molina

Written by Jean-Claude Carrière,
from the novel La Femme el le Pantin by Pierry Louys

Directed by Luis Buñuel

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"Maybe it's all a dream."

This was the annoying, indeed maddening evaluation common to the ear of serious film students during the '70s when neophyte buffs coped with the work of Maya Deren or Kenneth Anger. Probably today they say this in response to David Lynch. But the one person they most often utter this remark in regard to is the supreme practitioner of the surreal cinematic arts, Luis Buñuel.

Of course such a statement is a cop-out. As with fantasy movies with inconsistent laws of magic, or horror movies with ad hoc plot twists, a movie that is "all a dream" is a movie without any rules governing it. If a movie "is a dream," then there are no standards. There is no way to judge the success of the film by its own criteria. And such a statement raises the vexing question "Who is the dreamer?" The viewer? The director? A character in the film who is thus not "in" the film because it is a dream? But a faux radical sensibility likes to think that it is epatering the bourgeoisie when it celebrates films with unpredictable narratives and trick moments by labeling them "dream" movies. It's a bogus critical standard, and a bore.

On the other hand, in a sense there is no such thing as narrative conventions, if for no other reason than that the whole idea of movies is weird to begin with. People in dark rooms, watching walls move. Who could derive "story" from that experience? But for more than a century Hollywood and other national film industries have codified narrative structures so that we are all now used to how conventional movies work. Deviations from this familiarity are likely to either please or confound the viewer, depending on how much flair the filmmakers have, and how much they want to deviate from the norm and confound the viewer.

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Perhaps the king of narrative denial is Luis Buñuel, the premiere surrealist in international cinema. Born in Calanda, Spain, in 1900, and dying in Mexico in 1983 after having made some 30 films, Buñuel was the beneficiary of a fascinating career, which ranged from Parisian adventures with Picasso and Breton, to toils in the deepest of ruts of Poverty Row — Mexican cinema in the '50s, with that industry's low budgets and sentimental themes. His labors culminated in the imprimatur of the film festival circuit in the '60s and elevation to one of the grand old men of European cinema in the '70s.

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 1977 That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir) is not so much a summing up of a career as yet another reshuffling of his themes.

But possibly an even more captivating figure associated with Object is its screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Writer of 91 films, TV movies, and plays, Carrière has been associated in the cinema with Godard, Malle, and Forman, and in the theater with Peter Brook. Among his most notable screenplays are The Horseman on the Roof (1995), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), The Mahabharata (1989), Milou en mai (1989), Valmont (1989), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Swann in Love (1984), Danton (1982) Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982), Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979), The Tin Drum (1979) Viva Mara! (1965), Taking Off (1971), Borsalino (1970) and of course four other Buñuel films, The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the international hit Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), Belle de jour (1967), and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), as well as a film for one of Buñuel's sons, La Femme aux bottes rouges (1974), with Deneuve. Not only was Carrière a friend of Buñuel's, he was also a fan, and a major talent in his own right who deserves more critical scrutiny in the United States. In America, Carrière would probably be viewed as another Robert Bolt or Michael Wilson, the scribe of epical and "important" films on grand themes, but with Buñuel he worked at chamber pieces infused with Buñuel's own peculiar and distinctive eroticism, usually adapted from an obscure novel. That Obscure Object of Desire was their last collaboration, but serves as both a handy introduction to their work and a relaxed zenith of their quirky vision.

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That Obscure Object of Desire opens with its central character Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy, liberal businessman about to embark on a trip, supervising his valet as he burns everything in the house associated with an as-yet-unidentified woman. On his way to the train station, a terrorist bomb causes a traffic jam, and then at the station he sees the object of his ire, the beautiful young Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina in a dual role). He confronts her and Mathieu dowses her with a bucket of water. Back in his compartment, Mathieu explains to his companion passengers, one of them a dwarf psychology professor, the story behind the dowsing. Conchita was his maid, purchased by Mathieu from her mother, but he also desired her. Instead, they slip into a softly sado-masochistic relationship in which Conchita torments Mathieu and the humiliation further fuels his desire. Yet in the end, the couple is quasi-reconciled, only to be shown arguing in a shop as more terrorist bombs go off.

The story of Object is based on a popular erotic novel by one Pierry Louys. Its eroticism has not prevented the book from being filmed several times. Von Sternberg did an adaptation called The Devil is a Woman, with Marlene Dietrich, and Brigette Bardot appeared in one as well. But the adaptation that Buñuel was most likely to have seen was a silent version by Jacques de Baroncelli in 1929 — several of the scenes in Baroncelli's version are almost exactly re-created in Buñuel's some 50 years later. Louys's tale is about sexual frustration, which fits in perfectly with Buñuel's own themes, as well as his tendency to disrupt conventional narrative. The story is about woman as temptress and controller of men through her sexuality. Conchita starts out as a serf but soon almost becomes the master. She never succumbs to the temptation of giving her slave Mathieu any satisfaction, and she thinks nothing of making love to a younger, more appealing man right in front of him. Equally so, Buñuel never makes consessions to his viewers, altering a film's "reality" at will, yet seducing the viewer with ravishing images.

The crux of the film (every great movie has a crux) is the use of two women to play one character. The decision to do this has a curious history. When Buñuel and Carrière were first grappling with the project, Buñuel one day came up with the idea of shooting the movie with two characters for Mathieu to obsess over, rather than just one — a radical re-thinking of the source novel, but born of boredom during a rainy day. The two men played around with the idea for a few drafts but then gave it up. When filming began, Buñuel, who had cast Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) as Conchita, was soon dissatisfied. The young actress was going through a rough period of drugs and public lesbian hijinks. According to those involved, she didn't look good on camera and couldn't concentrate on the film. Buñuel and the producer decided to fire her after a couple of days. At this point, Buñuel resurrected the idea of the two women, but this time playing the same character. The notion adds some surrealistic distancing from the film — and doubles the erotic quotient.

But it would be a mistake to apply obvious feminist notions to the distancing. Buñuel is not making any kind of feminist statement about how men never truly see women. In fact, in the movie the power in the relationship between Mathieu and Conchita changes when he beats her up, a very Latin and very non-feminist turn for the plot to take. Instead, Buñuel is addressing the variety of the human personality. Conchita is not a mystery, and she is not a blank screen on which a man projects fantasies. Nor is the man blind and "not seeing" the "real" Conchita. 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 point is that there is method to Buñuel's surrealistic madness, and in comparison to some of the director's work from the '60s, Object is easy to follow, what with its framing device of a man telling strangers on a train the story of his life, a technique put to good use in movies ranging from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors to Six Degrees of Separation. The subplot of terrorists assaulting a society that does its best to ignore them also takes on unanticipated currency.

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The Criterion Collection has done a commendable job with That Obscure Object of Desire on DVD. This single sided, dual layered disc (RSDL) comes with what the box announces as a new high-definition anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) mastered from a 35mm interpositive (word on the street is that this DVD version is much better than the earlier Laserdisc edition). It should be noted that late in his career Buñuel preferred an even, almost TV-like shooting style with lots of flat lighting. The audio is in Dolby Digital 1.0 from a restored soundtrack mastered from a 35mm magnetic audio track. The disc has newly translated English subtitles and an optional dubbed English soundtrack.

Supplements are not plentiful, but they 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, which illustrate how much Buñuel derived from his predecessor. These scenes also come with excepts from the source book by Pierry Louys. Carrière also receives appropriate attention. There is a lengthy video interview with the screenwriter, who reminisces about working with Buñuel and goes into detail about the film's making and meaning. There is also a Jean-Claude Carrière filmography which fully lays out the vastness and variety of his career. Included in the packaging is a 16-page insert that features an essay on Buñuel by film scholar William Rothman, best known as a specialist on Hitchcock, 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. The static menu offers 19-chapter scene-selection, the last of which is color bars. Keep-case.

— D. K. Holm

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