“No good will ever come of chasing woman” my Mother always used to say, but what sort of Surrealist move will it make?
It is very good to see that Studiocanal are continuing their series of classic film releases on Blu-ray. As well as a number of extremely well known titles, there are is also an extensive collection of movies that fit into the “Well Respected” category, but that are less widely recognised, due at least in part to their foreign roots.
That Obscure Object of Desire is one such title. Initially released in 1977 and based upon an earlier novel from the turn of the century, it tells the story of an old man’s unfulfilled infatuation with a much younger woman. That alone is a gross oversimplification of a complex plot told in a confusing way – mainly by flashbacks and including two actresses playing the same part!
Directed by Luis Bunel, this is considered by some to be his finest work. Ultimately it was to be his last outing as director, so it can rightfully be considered as the pinnacle of his career. Personally I prefer The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but it is easy to draw parallels between the two movies, with a similar setting, both in terms of location and socio-economic group. Brunel appears to have had a certain fascination with the ruling classes of France and Spain, no doubt a throwback to his strict Jesuit upbringing and lack of comforts in his early life. His satirical portrayal of the cream of society – or at least the parts that float to the top, did not endear him to the likes of General Franco and so much of his early career was spent in self-inflicted exile in America and Mexico until he considered it safe to return. Despite this, his output as both director and writer was prodigious and still has a strong following amongst the fans of surrealist cinema.
We didn’t get off to the best of starts with the film. The disc just brought up a 3 language selection and no way of changing between them. It was necessary to stop the disc and restart it to get a language selection that worked. Once running, the usual trailers that have to be skipped through as the main menu cannot be activated until these have run. Once we got going though, things improved somewhat.
The movie opens in Spain, set against a backdrop of terrorism in both Spain and France. Our star Mathieu (Spanish doyen and Bunel favourite Fernando Rey) arranges a train journey for himself and his valet. By this simple expedient, we get to understand his privileged position in society right from the outset. Upon embarking on his journey the following day, we meet his travelling companions – yet more of the social elite, all of whom have some prior contact with one another. As the train leaves the station, a young woman runs along the departing train and pleads with Mathieu to stay. He proceeds to soak her with a bucket of water to the obvious shock of his fellow passengers, so feels compelled to reveal the full story.
In its simplest context, this film tells the story of a man’s fascination with a woman who will not share his passion and repeatedly rebuffs his advances. Conchita the female lead, is played by two very different actresses. Carole Bouquet plays the calmer, more balanced personality, more pliant to Mathieu, while the smouldering temptress is played by Angela Molina. Once you get over the hurdle of trying to visualise both woman as the same person, the idea works very well. From their initial meeting on her first day as chambermaid to Mathieu, the undercurrent of sexual tension is clear. He desires her, but she remains off limits, at least to him, a chaste virgin waiting the right man to sweep her off her feet. The mother of Conchita is portrayed as the outwardly religious, but morally bankrupt human incarnation of the church. She spends her day praying and refusing to work, despite being left almost penniless following her husband’s suicide, but is shown to be not above selling her daughter to Mathieu for the right price.
Bunel did appear to have a very small view of the world. Characters meet each other in a variety of locations, suggesting the population of Europe was somewhat smaller in his reality than in our own. This is just one of the issues that to a certain extent spoils the viewing of the film. Much of the surrealist humour present in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is absent from this film. There are witty asides and a few funny episodes, but the underlying landscape has neither the satirical silliness nor the shocking clashes that really define the genre. Instead the film feels quite unevenly paced at times and this does impact upon the film as a whole. On the plus side, the setting is every bit as good, and the dialogue crisp and to the point, if a little stilted at times. One can choose to listen to either the original French – with English subtitles, or an English or German dub, all with subtitles in English, German and Spanish. The alternative sound tracks have significantly different content, so if you want to hear what Bunel directed in terms of background effects, you will need to stick to the French and use the subtitles.
This film is best classed as a slow burner in terms of some of its more sexual content. The first 50 minutes or so are both sex and bad language free, but the middle section of this film soon changes this. The battle with the chastity belt is one of the few funny scenes in the film and is a good follow up to the attempted forced sex we have just seen prior. As the action moves to Seville, it all gets a little racier, but all still in the best possible taste! There is some debate as to whether the nude dance scene has been edited down for release, but the context and setting is entirely real and anything more would have bordered on the pornographic. The clean sunlit streets of the town contrast to the more rundown Parisian streets very well and reflect the change in mood of Conchita. Her mania seems to grow and the mood swings more intense. Quite why he is still bothering at this point is one of the main points of the film. Surely there must be other raven haired beautiful virgins living in Europe, even in in the mid 70s!
The final humiliation of Mathieu is made both sexually and financially and yet he still comes out on top. We feel little sympathy for the girl and there is no suggestion that Mathieu is scarred by the encounter. The ending is a little confusing and messy, almost as if Bunel did not know how to finish the film. In a way we end up full circle and without closure. The final 15 minutes are by far the weakest section of the film and this is a shame, as they need to be the strongest. The cinematography feels rushed and the dialogue lazy. This is probably a fair comparison to how Bunel felt by this point. At the age of 77, by all accounts he had found the filmmaking process tiring and much less enjoyable than his earlier productions and it really does show.
In conclusion, I did not enjoy this film as much as I had hoped. Some of Bunel’s earlier work is much stronger in terms of the standard of photography and the general pacing of the film. Possibly some of the cast were struggling to understand their characters and at times seem to be almost parroting the dialogue without getting under the skin. Whatever the reason, this film is best consigned to the “Better in Retrospective” shelf.
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