At first glance, Luis Buñuel’s final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, looks like a more straightforward prospect than the labyrinthine narrative divagations that characterize late masterworks from The Milky Way on, what with its outrageous yet cogently delineated bout of May/December amour fou. The film’s most obvious conceit—casting two very different actresses (ice queen Carole Bouquet, hot-blooded Angela Molina) in the role of eponymous “love object” Conchita—is a lark that owes as much to expedience as it does to caprice, since Buñuel’s first choice for the role just didn’t work out. Buñuel otherwise seems content to confine the film’s most surreal moments to the margins: First and foremost, there’s that sack (of shit?) that aging libertine Mathieu (Buñuel alter ego Fernando Rey) sometimes hauls around with him. The risibly misogynistic dialogue that encourages this reading by equating women and excrement-filled burlap turns out to be something of a red herring. Only in the film’s final moments do we actually discover what’s in the bag: someone’s tattered trousseau.
That Obscure Object of Desire splits its time between Seville and Paris, much as it splits its female protagonist in two. Buñuel’s decision to polarize Conchita into French and Spanish personae reveals a definite ambivalence about elements within both cultures, especially those tending toward extremism, a skeptical relativism that crops up among the director’s late-period films, most egregiously in The Phantom of Liberty’s opening segment. This episode, a parodic gloss on Goya’s painting Third of May, 1808, casts a cold eye on both French tyranny (Napoleon’s sacrilegious troops) and Spanish zealotry (ranks of executed monks, one of whom was played in cameo by Buñuel). The terrorism that haunts the film does more than simply literalize the hoary cliché about the battle of the sexes; it puts the purview of the purely personal into perspective against a history of pervasive violence that, at least in theory, the surrealists themselves once applauded.
“The simplest surrealist act,” André Breton wrote in the Second Manifesto, “is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing at random.” Buñuel knew well enough, of course, that actual violence solves nothing, perpetuating endless cycles of retribution and further violence. He didn’t confine his critique to politically oriented groups that were active at the time (like Germany’s Red Army Faction), which is patently obvious when you consider the name of the terrorist organization that bombs the shopping arcade at film’s end: the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Just when Mathieu and Conchita start up their lovers’ quarrel again, a bomb explodes across the final frames. Buñuel certainly didn’t have many points in common with the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, but he surely would have agreed with Pascal’s notion that extremities eventually coincide.
As frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière has pointed out, the entirety of Buñuel’s oeuvre can be said to occupy the space between two of cinema’s most striking images: the sliced-open eyeball that announces “the shock of the new” in Un Chien Andalou and the mended, yet still bloodied, bridal lace seen near the end of That Obscure Object of Desire. Far from being “all sewn up,” however, Buñuel’s cinematic legacy continues to blast apart the routinization of the status quo. His films maintain the power to inflame filmgoers still passionate about indulging their imaginations, encountering along the way things mysterious and outré, in an era that seems ever more inclined to empty spectacle and easy answers.
Luis Buñuel and DP Edmond Richard keep the camera moving throughout That Obscure Object of Desire, as was the case in all the late-period films where Buñuel availed himself of a video relay monitor. Consequently, the film has a sinuously slinky quality that’s every bit as seductive as the actresses on screen. Although the color palette remains typically unfussy and naturalistic, now and then a strategically placed stained-glass window adds a tinge of baroque stylization to the compositions. Lionsgate offers the film in an exceptional 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer. Clarity and detail are significantly amplified compared to the lamentably OOP Criterion DVD, and the colors (however restrained) really pop where it counts. Given the fact that the film was redubbed in post, with Michel Piccoli lending Mathieu his urbane patois and a single actress providing vocal unanimity for Conchita’s split personality, the French-language track comes across pretty well. The English track fares worse, mostly sounding muffled and distant.
Lionsgate has assembled an excellent roster of brand new supplements. "The Arbitrariness of Desire" is an extended interview with scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. One of the most fascinating bits: Carrière discusses Buñuel’s lifelong obsession with 19th-century Decadent writers like Joris-Karl Huysmans (the two collaborated on an adaptation of Là-Bas that was never filmed), Octave Mirbeau (author of Diary of a Chambermaid, which Buñuel filmed in 1964), and Pierre Louÿs, who wrote the novel that served as the basis for That Obscure Object of Desire. Carrière also talks at length about the collaboration process and Buñuel’s ascetic tendencies. In a rather shorter interview, director Carlos Saura discusses his friendship with Buñuel, meeting his compatriot in the late 1950s when Buñuel returned to Spain in order to film Viridiana under the understandably hesitant auspices of Franco’s regime. "Lady Doubles" provides interviews with Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet, who discuss the casting process and their quite different working relationships with Buñuel, who was polite and somewhat distant with Bouquet, yet reputedly got on famously with countrywoman Molina. "Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker" provides DP Edmond Richard and AD Pierre Lary with an opportunity to discuss their experiences working under the punctilious Buñuel, in particular the early days of the shoot when Maria Schneider still had the lead role.
Lionsgate does right by the swan song of one of cinema’s least compromising, most iconoclastic mavericks, with a pristine new transfer and a robustly informative selection of spanking new extras.