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A middle-aged, wealthy widower named Mathieu (Fernando Rey) boards a train, but not before collecting a bucket of water to dump on a young lady’s head in view of the entire station. When he gets back to his seat, he explains his seemingly horrible actions to his fellow passengers. His explanation includes the long and sorted relationship with the girl – a young, impoverished and beautiful flamenco dancer from Seville named Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina).

That Obscure Object of Desire
Some review copies arrive with a whole lot of baggage. That Obscure Object of Desire intimidates me. I’ve never seen it, nor have I seen any of Luis Buñuel’s films outside of some of his earliest short features. I have some lost memories of a VHS viewing of Belle de Jour at a party or something, but am left mostly unprepared to put That Obscure Object of Desire in the correct context with his last run of better-known, French-made satirical features, including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. Buñuel is easily one of the most important and influential filmmakers that ever lived, and approaching his four-decade long career from its bookends alone ( That Obscure Object of Desire was his final film) seems a fool’s errand. Because I have access to Hulu Plus and their massive Criterion collection, I decided to quickly remedy this by watching the one movie that seemed most pertinent to my understanding of the director – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – the ineffectual misadventures of snobby upper-class types that can’t seem to get together for a meal – is described as a surrealist comedy, which is a pretty accurate portrait, though I’d refine that portrait by calling it a super-dry take on the screwball and spoof formula. Ridiculous, low-brow happenings abound, but everything is continuously anchored in the relatively depressing reality of class-based satire. The surrealism comes into play with the film’s dream/flashback sequences, which feature ghosts, repetitious sound design, and oddly hand-painted sets in place of the rest of the film’s locations. Buñuel shoots relatively long takes that he edits largely in-camera, giving the entire film a stage play-inspired atmosphere.

Unfortunately for me, it turns out that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has very little in common with That Obscure Object of Desire. Some of the actors are the same, specifically Spanish actor Fernando Ray, who also appears in Sergio Corbucci’s sublime Zapata Western, Compañeros, William Friedkin’s American crime classic, The French Connection, Enzo G. Castellari’s Cold Eyes of Fear, Marcello Aliprandi’s Smiling Maniacs,  and Lucio Fulci’s White Fang. The characters are also similarly deplorable, there are similar comments on social class, and both films feature largely incidental left-wing terrorist subplots. Outside of this, I actually found more to contrast than compare between the two films. The filmmaking style is more conventional here – Buñuel doesn’t take efforts to draw attention to himself as the director and flashbacks are told in the same visual manner as the forward-moving narrative. The plotting does appear aimless at times, but rarely veers off into unnecessary avenues, nor is it a patchwork pseudo-anthology, like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

That Obscure Object of Desire
That Obscure Object of Desire is, from what I’m able to gather, ultimately a film about the disappointments/fears of old age and the frustrating, male outsider’s view of women – both especially common subjects for French and Italian cinema from the era (or perhaps the era that had just come to an end). What’s interesting is the implications of Buñuel’s treatment of Conchita as the obscure object of Mathieu’s desire – not only is she played by two different actresses that don’t really resemble each other, but each actress plays the character very, very differently. The most obvious implication is that Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina are playing the duality of female ambivalence, which physically changes as Mathieu perceives it – French actress Bouquet plays a more womanly and even-tempered woman while Molina, the Spaniard, plays a more passionate and emotionally youthful character. Both actresses were then dubbed by a third actress – adding another layer of confusion to the mix. The funny thing is that the subtext of the choice was apparently developed during filming when the idea formed, so deep dissection is largely as unscientific as the filmmaking choice is irrational.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay was co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière, who started working with Buñuel during Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and continues working as a writer for varying genres to this day (just last year he co-wrote The Artist and the Model with director Fernando Trueba). Working from Pierre Louys' 1898 novel La Femme et le Pantin, Carrière structures the story in flashback, which seems an arbitrary choice, but does present the story as Mathieu’s subjective version of the truth. At some point, one wonders if Conchita even exists or if anything Mathieu is telling the people on the train is true. By the end of the film, it’s pretty clear Conchita exists in some form, but while at the mercy of Mathieu’s narration I realized this could all be one long lie about a guy that beats his girlfriend. If I really, really dig deep into my comfort zone I can even see That Obscure Object of Desire as something of a comment on or even an inversion of the rape/revenge  films that were gaining popularity when the film was released in 1977. Because we only see the story of sexual pursuit from Mathieu’s point of view, it’s actually easy enough to read the film as misogynistic (women are such teases!), but you’d really have to turn a blind eye to ignore his grotesque, obsessive behavior. He’s not quite a Humbert Humbert-level creeper, but he makes some incredibly offensive choices in his romantic pursuit.

That Obscure Object of Desire

Video


That Obscure Object of Desire is presented here in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and full 1080p HD video. These Lionsgate/StudioCanal releases have all been relatively modest in terms of digital restoration. They’ve all looked good without featuring any kind of mind-blowing clarity increase over their DVD counterparts. Releases like Ran and Contempt have been strong overall, while there have been complaints when comparing their The Third Man release to Criterion’s now OOP version. This led some to assume that Criterion might’ve done better with all of these film had they been able to release them on the Blu-ray format (so far, I believe every one of the Lionsgate/Studio Canal Blu-rays were previously available via Criterion DVDs). Without any means for a proper comparison, I can’t really say if Criterion could’ve done better, but there’s very little reason to complain about this transfer, which may be the strongest I’ve seen from the studio. This image displays minor signs of DNR work in brighter shots (details are slightly waxy), but there’s still plenty of natural film grain, especially in the more rare dark shots; some of which have problems with really gritty granules and impure blacks flecked with green. The blacks that define edges and shadows in the brighter-lit scenes, on the other hand, are plenty deep (though I did catch a few weird moiré effects on some of the softer shadows towards the end of the film). Detail levels are a bit soft, I suppose, but the depth of the wide shots and complexity of patterns/textures is plenty impressive without any major sharpening artefacts. Colours are tight and rich with some very vibrant highlights. Some of the brighter reds, most of which are practically the same shade, bleed out a bit and the overall palette appears unnaturally yellowed (specifically green elements), but the cooler hues survive intact.

That Obscure Object of Desire

Audio


StudioCanal has given viewers the choice between the original French and English dub, both in lossless, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound. I’ll admit that the English dub is actually pretty successful in terms of matching performances (the lip-sync is constantly off, of course), but there’s otherwise no good reason to experience the film outside of its native language. Not only are original soundtracks almost always preferable in situations like this, but the English dub doesn’t appear to have been re-mastered on any level – it’s softer, implying that it was taken from a compressed track. Some effects are missing and the effects that aren’t missing are dulled and flat. The French track suffers minor issues with volume (sometimes the dialogue is noticeably louder than it was a second ago) and is definitely crowded at times (as is the problem with many similar mono tracks), but the overall experience is layered, natural, and generally a lot crisper than similar tracks. The film’s two explosions and one brief shootout sequence are surprisingly punchy and bassy, particularly on the French track. The film opens with an impressive staccato acoustic guitar riff, but that’s about it for ‘musical score’ as far as Buñuel is concerned. The guitar, which sounds plenty warm despite the lack of LFE enhancement, only crops up a few times as an on-screen element. The only other piece of music is a selection from Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ during the film’s final scene.

That Obscure Object of Desire

Extras


The extras begin with an interview with director Carlos Saura (11:40, HD) in Spanish. Saura discusses meeting and befriending Buñuel, Buñuel’s work in Spain in the 1960s, and his ode to his friend, Buñuel y la mesa del rey Salomón (aka: Buñuel and the table of King Solomon, 2001). The Arbitrariness of Desire (35:20, HD) is a retrospective interview with writer Jean-Claude Carrière, who recalls the process of working with Buñuel on various films throughout their career, the arbitrary/abstract qualities of That Obscure Object of Desire, and Buñuel’s relationship with Fernando Ray. Lady Doubles (37:30, HD) is another retrospective interview with actresses Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, who describe the odd process of being cast for the same role (the dual role was decided after filming commenced and was a secret), working together on the character, working with Ray, and Buñuel’s direction. The extras end with Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker (16:20, HD), an interview with one of Buñuel’s two assistant directors, Pierre Lary and cinematographer Edmond Richard. Discussion here mostly concerns the trials of working with an older and unsure Buñuel, who had to fire his original actress.

That Obscure Object of Desire

Overall


As someone still new to Luis Buñuel’s cinematic universe, I found I fell more in love with the movie I wasn’t supposed to be reviewing – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It’s probably because it’s a more surreal work and a comedy. That Obscure Object of Desire is a more demanding experience and probably the more rewarding one, assuming the viewer is perhaps more familiar with Buñuel’s wide range of work. StudioCanal has done a nice job cleaning the film up for its first US Blu-ray release (though it appears this is generally the same as the version released by the same studio overseas) and has included a small, entertaining collection of cast and crew interviews. My only real complaint is that all of these Lionsgate/StudioCanal releases feature the same song over the main menus, which is a pretty minor problem.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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