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The Obscure Object of Desire

Year: 1977
Production Co: Greenwich Film Productions
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel/Jean-Claude Carrière
Cast: Fernando Rey, Carole Boquet, Angela Molina

The only other movie of Luis Buñuel's I'd seen, The Phantom of Liberty, was a surrealist delight, and I was expecting and hoping for something similar here.

But while it had a single avant grade element I'll get to, he seemed more interested in telling a far more everyday story – a classically European tale of a powerful middle aged man in love with a woman far too young for him and the romantic headaches that ensue.

The hero is Frenchman Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy merchant who swans around Europe enjoying the high life at a time of political tension when left wing groups are committing terrorist acts in the streets. It may all be inspired by the student riots that rocked France and Hungary a decade before – I have no idea if there was any such sociopolitical unrest in Europe at the time apart from the troubles in Ireland.

We meet him walking into a Seville travel agent, booking a shared cabin on a first class train trip back home to Paris. He ensconces himself aboard and gets to know his cabinmates, a senior judge, a businessman who also happen to have dwarfism and a friendly woman and her young daughter.

As the train prepares to pull out a young woman approaches, looking for Mathieu. After getting an attendant to get him a bucket of water, he goes up to the window and pours it all over the young woman's head.

Figuring he's seen her off, Mathieu returns to his cabin where the other travellers start asking why he did it, very excited to hear the whole story, and he starts to recount the tale, not realising the young woman has climbed aboard the train too.

It's all told in flashbacks. He meets the young woman, Conchita, a Spanish dancer, and is immediately smitten. But even though his pursuit of her eventually seems successful, there's always a reason why she can't or won't consummate their relationship. The excuses get flimsier and more stupid every time until Mathieu throws his hands up in frustration and wants out, leading him to where we found him, the train and the bucket of water.

It's all very prosaic apart from one fantasy-like element – Conchita is played by two different actresses from one scene to the next, sometimes even within scenes. Why? I assumed it was satirising or commenting on something, maybe the interchangeable nature of women to a powerful man used to getting what he wants or something.

Then I read that the first actress Buñuel cast, Maria Schneider (of The Last Tango in Paris fame), had a huge argument with her director and was fired, and it was only afterwards Buñuel's cast two actresses to play Conchita's part.

And so, because the idea to do so apparently didn't occur to him until long after he'd written the script and had started filming, it might not have meant anything at all.

All of which leaves nothing but a simple unrequited love story about a sleazy old man lusting after a young woman with a framing device of him telling a group of strangers all about it. And, having come from the same year Star Wars came out, the gender politics are incredibly dodgy in the bargain.

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