Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  November 20, 2001

“Must I wait much longer?”

“If I gave you what you want, you’d stop loving me.”

Film ****

Luis Bunuel was almost 80 years old when he made his final picture, That Obscure Object of Desire.  A prolific and influential filmmaker, he left behind a body of work that is as enlightening as it is shadowy, as funny as it is moving, and usually as strange as it is truthful.  His last picture was as fitting an epitaph as he could have asked for.

It is a picture that is simple in narrative yet amazingly complex in its exploration of that most controlling and damaging of human emotions, desire.  Told largely in flashback form as Mathieu (Rey) explains to fellow Parisians traveling by train from Seville why he dumped a pail of water on a girl chasing the train.  His story is more than a bit of entertainment to pass the time…it is a deep and involving tale of the darker side of love.

The object of his desire is made even more obscure by Bunuel by having two different actresses play her…no explanation.  Conchita (Bouquet and Molina) is a beautiful young woman who torments Mathieu by what he can only deem a strange duality.  She claims to love him, but she won’t surrender her virginity to him on his terms.

Mathieu becomes more and more driven by his desire as their relationship unfolds.  He thinks he does the right things by providing her with money, a home, and comfort, but each time he does, she seems to shrink further from him.  “You don’t love me,” she tells him at one point.  “You love what I won’t give you.”  She asks him to explain why a sexual relationship is so important to him.  His best answer is simply that it is normal, but one can see that any answer he is capable of giving wouldn’t be right.

The film doesn’t really prompt us to choose sides…the ambiguity of both characters make our point of view constantly switch back and forth.  If we feel Conchita is a merciless tease who enjoys the power she has over Mathieu at one point, in the next we are wishing that Mathieu would cool his loins and stop always letting his libido control his emotions.

Their story culminates in one of the most unforgettable sequences Bunuel ever created…after buying Conchita a small house, she locks him out with a gate, rails against him with hateful barbs, and even engages in sex with a younger man while he can only look on in shock and heartbreak.  Later, she comes to him to explain that it wasn’t as it seemed, and that she was making one last attempt to reach him on a level other than his lust, but the embittered Mathieu can only lash out violently.

No one is innocent here…the movie doesn’t really judge its characters, but merely explores desire as a dark and domineering human emotion, and considers where exactly it might lead if left unchecked.  It’s not a Hollywood movie either, where you can calmly expect one or more protagonist to end up dead.  In the world of Bunuel, no one gets off that easily.  I simply found myself feeling equal amounts of admiration and disdain for both Conchita, who won’t give herself away on anyone else’s terms, and for Mathieu, who can’t seem to stop trying.

Bunuel managed to restrain himself from his usual touches of surrealism here, save for one point…the dual actresses in the same role.  Does one represent one side of Conchita while the other represents a different one?  That’s a possibility, but as I studied the picture, found it too easy an explanation.  Both women are extremely attractive, both are willing to bare all for the camera, both lead Mathieu on with a coy playfulness and chastise him with a cool tongue.  My best estimation for the real reason?  Mathieu becomes so obsessed with the one part of Conchita that he can’t have, that the rest of the woman becomes interchangeable.  But don’t quote me on that.

Another somewhat surreal touch is the occasional presence of gang-like terrorists in the movie.  They serve no narrative purpose, but one can speculate that Bunuel brought them in to punctuate certain scenes with a bomb blast or gunfire.  The very ending of the film could be considered apocalyptic…or then again, maybe nothing more than what it seems.  At any rate, it must be concluded that Mathieu and Conchita are not headed toward an obligatory happy ending.

Like the best works of Bunuel (and most of his films can be considered his best works, in my opinion), this is a picture that entertains while you watch, but gives you plenty of food for thought afterwards.  One can only hope that the basest of human emotions won’t always lead to such moral unraveling and loss of being.  Nevertheless, That Obscure Object of Desire was intended to explore the darker possibilities, and it does so without reservation.  It is a fitting end to an incredible filmmaking career.

Video ***1/2

This is a beautiful anamorphic transfer from Criterion, framed closer to 1.78:1 rather than the listed 1.66:1.  Colors are natural looking and vibrant throughout, and the print is generally so clean as to never give away the truth about its age.  Images are sharp and crystal clear throughout.  Save for one or two darker scenes, such as the first bedtime sequence between the leads and a few others that show a bit more print wear and grain, this is a near flawless offering.  Fans of Bunuel and classic world cinema will be quite thrilled with this effort.

Audio ***

Though a simple single-channel mono mix, this Dolby Digital track offers some dynamic range and punch in several spots (the aforementioned terrorist scenes, especially).  Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, as is the musical score.  An English language track is also included, but the original French audio is preferable.

Features ***

There is a video interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere filmed just last year at his home…he speaks English and talks extensively about working with Bunuel.  There are some film clips included.  There are also three scenes from Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1926 silent film La Femme et le Patin (The Woman and the Puppet, the title of the original novel), which may be the earliest filmed version of the book.  There is a trailer, and a booklet containing both an essay and a transcript of an interview with Bunuel.


Personally, I’d love to see every last one of Luis Bunuel’s films released on DVD via the loving hands at Criterion.  That Obscure Object of Desire is a classic film that gets world class treatment, and joins the likes of Diary of a Chambermaid and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie as another terrific across-the-board Bunuel offering from Criterion.