From Un Chien Andalou to That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel spent almost 50 years cataloging the frustrated romantic desires of his characters. Though not as revered today as, say, L’Avventura, The Obscure Object of Desire (based on the Pierre Loyuys novel which Josef von Sternberg previously filmed as The Devil is a Woman) similarly uses a radical rhetorical device to home in on the particulars of its characters’ strange romantic entanglements. Because he was so fascinated with the mysteries of life, it’s strange how Buñuel often underplayed the savage poetry of his creations. Though he was quick to reject psychoanalytic readings of his work, he also shunned overly logical interpretations of his films. When writing That Obscure Object of Desire with Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière suggested the script’s lead female role be played by two actresses, an idea the director quickly brushed aside at the time as “the whim of a rainy day.” That whim, though, would become a fascinating wish fulfillment.
At the time of its release, That Obscure Object of Desire was preceded by controversy. Hot off Antonioni’s The Passenger, Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) was originally cast in the role of Conchita, but Buñuel had a terrible time working with the actress, and after a month’s worth of shooting was replaced by, not one, but two actresses (the Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). In an interview with José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Buñuel explained, “You two already know: it was out of necessity.” But if replacing Schneider was necessary, why replace her with two actresses? Critic Emilio García Rivera tried to explain this decision: “No one knows the person he loves, it’s that person and at the same time, another.” But there is no logical explanation for this decision because Buñuel uses this bizarre casting device in order to call attention to the film’s irrational war of sexual terrorism. This is more or less confirmed by the fact that film’s scenes were divided equally between the two women and that the constant switching back and forth are not meant to evoke changes in Conchita’s mood.
Mathieu (Fernando Rey) follows Conchita everywhere, repeatedly trying to win her sex by buying her things or giving her impoverished mother a steady nest egg. She repeatedly proclaims her independence throughout the film (“I don’t owe you a thing” or “My guitar is mine, I’ll play it for whom I please”), accusing Mathieu of wanting her only for her sex. Buñuel equally divides his scorn between the two, and if it’s obvious that the hypocritical Mathieu only wants to devirginize Conchita (or, more accurately, break through her makeshift chastity belt), the director reserves some scorn for the woman’s masochistic behavior. Conchita says she won’t go to bed with Mathieu until she knows he loves her and subsequently teases him with a series of seemingly arbitrary acts. Does she or doesn’t she break a vase on purpose in order to lead Mathieu into the room where she’s hiding a male friend who could also be her lover? Most cruel is the scene where she has sex with her friend in front of Mathieu but not before locking the older man out of his Spanish villa and putting a grille between them.
Much of That Obscure Object of Desire is told via a series of flashbacks. After boarding a train to Paris, Mathieu must explain to his fellow passengers (a judge, a midget psychologist and a woman and her daughter) why he just poured a bucket of water on Conchita at the Seville train station. Not unlike The Phantom of Liberty, That Obscure Object of Desire is very much about those irrational and mysterious acts that bring us together. It toys with our curiosity but seemingly shuns our inquisitiveness. Buñuel was a great moralist, but one of the things that makes That Obscure Object of Desire so fascinating is how Mathieu’s moral justifications are betrayed by the director’s own irrational defilements. Mathieu attempts to excuse his rank misogyny, but by the time Conchita pours water on his head we’ve come to realize that they’re both equally to blame for their sex war.
Paris is under attack by a group of terrorists, most prominently the Revolutionary Army of the Baby Jesus, and the film’s terrorist undercurrent fabulously parallels the film’s romantic acts of violence. When Mathieu is mugged at a local park, his assailants only ask for 800 Francs. Confused by this transaction, Mathieu can’t even report the crime to a police officer. The mysterious nature of the attack only serves to frustrate Mathieu’s ability to ask questions. And while telling his story on the Paris train, Mathieu and his fellow passengers are momentarily stunned when the midget psychologist humorously declares, “Yes, there’s no mistaking me for anyone else.” This can be read as a direct reference to the film’s two actresses (more successful, though, is the delirious symmetry of Mathieu’s living room, a shot of which prefigures Conchita’s first appearance in the film), though it more accurately points to Buñuel’s resistance to digging too deep beneath the surface of his films. When Mathieu and Conchita go up in terrorist flames by film’s end, we’re left to wonder if their war will go on and, more importantly, if they ever consummated their love.