That Obscure Object of Desire Movie Review
The film begins as Matieu, a wealthy widower, boards the express from Seville to Paris and, as the train is pulling from the station, dumps a bucket over the head of a woman who is running after him. His fellow passengers being understandably baffled, Matieu proceeds to explain what led to his action.
For men like Matieu, cash is the lubricant that keeps the world sliding forward. It buys the best seats, the best service -- and, of course, the best girls. So when Matieu meets the stunning young maid Conchita he immediately tries to buy his way into her bed. She flees town, and Matieu, not used to being denied, becomes immediately obsessed. He tracks her down, courts her (slipping envelopes of cash to her mother doesn't hurt), and takes her as a lover. But he doesn't get quite what he's paid for; Conchita accepts his generosity but, once she's promised her love, she alternately promises and then denies sex -- a duality that's represented by having two actresses play Conchita without explanation. (What do you expect from Buñuel? After all, he brought us the ubiquitous film-class image of a razor blade slicing through an eyeball.) The more demure Conchita, who claims that she doesn't want to be reduced to a mere object of desire, is played by the stunning French actress Carole Bouquet; the bitchier Conchita, who takes wicked pleasure in treating Matieu ever more cruelly, is played by Spanish actress Ángela Molina.
It just gets worse and worse for Matieu, who's played to sad patrician perfection by the noble Fernando Rey. It's bad enough when Conchita just says no, but then she lets young male friends sleep in her room at Matieu's house, and then she takes a job dancing naked for tourists at a cabaret, and finally she has sex with another man right in front of Matieu as he watches helplessly through the gates of a house he's just bought her.
The film makes us uncomfortable voyeurs to the spectacle of a man being crushed -- yet like all of Buñuel's films, it illuminates the diversity of desire and human nature. Who's really in control here? Conchita becomes increasingly unkind in her treatment of Matieu, but when he's finally driven mad, finally has enough and punches her in a bloody consummation, she runs desperately after him, bringing the film back to its beginning on the train to Paris. Historians observe that all systems eventually reverse themselves; now Matieu seems to be in control, but it's possible that there will be another reversal that puts Conchita back on top. Regardless of who's putatively in control, the two are inextricably intertwined in a dance of destruction -- yet neither wants the music to stop.
Underscoring the violent nature of the world, the film is bracketed by random terrorist explosions, soaring fireballs that burst into the frame at the beginning, as Matieu is on the way to the train station, and at the end, as Matieu and Conchita, reunited in Paris, walk down an alley. We are borne from violence and consumed by it, says Buñuel in his final cinematic statement. Pain and destruction are part of the cycle of life. Better get used to it.
The Criterion edition DVD features the original and English-dubbed versions of the film, along with an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and a few excerpts from an old silent version of The Woman and the Puppet along with passages from the book, part of an interesting comparison in faithfulness.
Aka Cet obscur objet du désir. Based on the book The Woman and the Puppet.