Starting with the title, let’s ask: the object of whose desire, and how come she’s so obscure? Our, ahem, ‘hero’ and narrator Mathieu (the incomparable Fernando Rey) is the man who’s got it bad. The object (how flattering a term!) is dancer Conchita, and so skewed is Mathieu’s perspective that he sees her as two women. One, voluptuous and sensual (played by Angela Molina) inflames his passions; the other, elegant and cool to the point of icy (Carole Bouquet), continually denies him.
We’re in Luis Bunuel territory, all right.
The usual targets are lined up (Bunuel’s films often come across as the cinematic equivalent of a shooting range): the middle classes* (Mathieu is a wealthy businessman who utilises his contacts in the legal profession to get his way – or resorts to bribery if that fails); the church (Conchita’s supposedly God-fearing mother takes Mathieu up on a financial offer vis-à-vis her daughter); and the state (the battle of the sexes is played out against a backdrop of terrorist activity).
This is a film that could have been made this year and would have proved scathingly satirical and ridden to box office glory on a wave of controversy. Bunuel made it thirty-one years ago.
Mathieu narrates his saga of desire and frustration to his fellow passengers during a train journey. Present in his compartment – and sly personifications of these themes – are a lawyer (officialdom), a psychiatrist (apposite, given the nature of Mathieu’s obsession and the duality of his perception of Conchita), and a mother and daughter (symbolic of the family unit Mathieu is bastardising in buying off Conchita’s mother). The funniest scene in the film has the teenage daughter brusquely sent out into the corridor as Mathieu describes his night of non-consummation.
Presupposing Steve Martin’s hilarious almost-couplings with Kathleen Turner in ‘The Man With Two Brains’, Mathieu very nearly gets his way. Conchita, furious at her mother’s bargain with Mathieu, nonetheless agrees to live with him but begins treating him as little more than a sugar daddy, sponging off him while holding out against the necessity of intercourse for as long as possible.
Their first night sees him enter the bedroom with Conchita (Molina); she excuses herself to the bathroom and dons a nightgown, leaving it unbuttoned, her décolletage exposed. The Conchita who rejoins him (Bouquet) is dressed demurely and allows him the briefest of caresses before saying, “Not yet, I’m not in the mood now.”
Mathieu becomes forceful. Conchita acquiesces, but insists he extinguish the candles. “Don’t celebrate your victory too soon,” she warns as darkness embraces them. Grunting in shock, he stumbles out of bed and re-illuminates the candles. Beneath her nightdress, a silken arrangement of ribbons and bows; quite alluring, but preventative in its design. Or, to put it bluntly, if Ann Summers had designed a chastity belt, that’s what Mathieu finds himself doing battle with.
“I struggled with it for fifteen minutes,” he tells his fellow passengers sadly. “I was incensed … It was impossible to remove it.”
The final bitter joke of ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’ is, of course, that Mathieu never gets his wicked little way. Bunuel’s subject is the concept of a woman for whom one’s passion is unrequited as having two sides: the yin and yang of erotic allure and physical unattainability. Casting two actresses in the same role is the perfect realisation. And in structuring an entire film around a besotted man being denied sex, Bunuel achieves cinema’s most absolute – and phenomenally witty – comment on sexual frustration.
*Not for nothing is one of his most famous works entitled ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise’.