Cet Obscur Objet du Désir (That Obscure Object of Desire) (1977)

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Cet Obscur Objet du Désir (1977)
Starring Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Ángela Molina
Director of Photography: Edmond Richard
Edited by Hélène Plemiannikov
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Directed by Luis Buñuel and
Rating: 8 out of 10

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The title of Luis Buñuel's final movie already gives you an insight into what the film is trying to do. It is about desire but the object of this desire is obscure, making the desire seemingly questionable. It also implies that the desired is objectified. Mathieu (Fernando Rey) embodies all of these aspects perfectly. His desire is Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina) and whatever he sees in her has nothing to do with who she actually is. She is not obscure because she is elusive (which is how his narration interprets it) but because he projects his wishes onto her and is then frustrated that she can’t fulfill his dreams.

If nothing else, this is a movie about men and women. Mathieu symbolizes all men who think they can objectify anything they are interested in. The moment he sees Conchita, he tries to get hold of her by any means necessary: flirting, seducing, bribing, stalking, sweet-talking, making deals, it doesn’t matter. She is what he wants and he tries to get her, no matter how she reacts. To him, she might be almost schizophrenic (as shown by the two actresses playing her) but her demeanor is reasonable. She wants to remain an individual and decide over herself and her body. Mathieu doesn’t get that at any point. From a traditional male point of view, there is only sexual frustration. She is a tease in the worst sense. But from her point of view, she is simply a free spirit who enjoys some of the attention he gives her but does not want to be tied down by this man’s sex drive.

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Because the movie is shown from his point of view, his demands and expectations are at the center but she gets plenty of opportunities to explain herself, which often includes valid arguments: besides her independence over her body she also raises the question why he thinks he loves her if he doesn’t care about her wishes. Again, he sees and hears none of this.

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She is the unconquered (virgin) country that he has decided to settle on, to inhabit, to make his. In a society that encourages ownership, patriarchy and authority, his views are preferred. He tells the story to a variety of people in a train compartment who represent all sides of society and who all whole-heartedly (or superficially) agree with his conclusion: a woman like this deserves to be killed (or, in one of the last moments in their relationship, beaten up).

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The moment he finishes the story, Conchita walks in and embarrasses him which urges him to run after her immediately, giving away to his desire again and thereby unmasking his own hypocrisy. This runs concurrent with the subtext of leftist terror that runs through the movie. He is disgusted by it because it works in a similar way than Conchita’s attitude towards him and is attempting to threaten the capitalist views that he represents. Still, society is fascinated by this terror, as we see and hear it on the news all the time. Conchita clearly rejects his advances at one point because he tried to buy her mother’s favor to get Conchita. In the end, though, he is helpless. He cannot change to become more of a man that Conchita would accept, so he goes up in flames eventually.

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The movie is such a clear sign of a culture that doesn’t know what it wants, that seems to fall slightly apart while everyone maintains that everything is perfectly fine. The train compartment is all those people, trying to stay on the surface of things, telling each other that they agree on their random societal rules, confirming that they don’t have to worry and that someone like Conchita, who disturbs the peace, is the real problem. This aspect alone is a reason that this movie is still very relevant.

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