While there are many examples of individual actors playing multiple roles in the same film – Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949), Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964), Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (John Landis, 1988) – how many examples do we have of two actors embodying different aspects of just one character? In his typically subversive swansong, Luis Buñuel, the father of filmic Surrealism, does exactly this. Inspired by Pierre Louÿs’ 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet (already filmed by Joseph von Sternberg in 1935 and Julien Duvivier in 1959), Cet obscure objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) is the story of Mathieu, a wealthy middle-aged Frenchman and his frustrating pursuit of Conchita, a young Spanish woman.
Buñuel and his regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière originally flirted with the idea of casting two actresses while working on the script, only to dismiss it and proceed to the casting stage looking for just one actress. They settled on Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger) but she quickly had to be replaced and it was then that the two-actress idea resurfaced. The two Conchitas are played by 19-year-old Carole Bouquet – making her film debut – and 21-year-old Ángela Molina, who had recently appeared in the critically acclaimed Spanish Civil War drama Las largas vacaciones del 36 (The Long Vacations of 36, Jaime Camino, 1976). Bouquet is the icily elegant, willowy Conchita while Molina’s is an earthy ball of fire. “The use of two [Conchitas] is a brilliant surrealist ploy which disturbs and jars the spectator throughout […]”, notes Katherine Singer Kovács. “The scrutinising camera registers the face of two women where Mathieu perceives only one. It therefore establishes an ironic distance between spectator and protagonist. This distance allows us to gauge the true nature of Mathieu’s passion.” (1) For his male protagonist, Buñuel turned to veteran Fernando Rey, one of his favourite actors and a master at playing the worldly bon viveur with a distinctly melancholic air. Rey had starred in several of Buñuel’s finest films – from Viridiana (1961) to Tristana (1970) and Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972) (2).
The film opens with Mathieu leaving Seville for Paris. As his train is about to depart, we see a bruised and beaten Conchita (Bouquet) rush to the platform and call after him. With a minimum of fuss, Mathieu calmly tips a bucket of cold water over her. This immediately piques the curiosity of Mathieu’s fellow (first class) passengers; what could possibly have led such a distinguished gentleman to such an indecorous act? Mathieu settles down and starts telling his story, allowing Buñuel to introduce a familiar narrative device, one so straightforward that it might seem at odds with his usual subversiveness. As Octavio Paz notes, however, it’s all part of
the duality that governs [Buñuel’s] work. On the one hand, ferocity and lyricism, a world of dream and of blood which immediately calls to mind two other great Spaniards: Quevedo and Goya. On the other, the concentration of a style not at all baroque in character which leads him to a kind of exasperated sobriety. The straight line, not the surrealist arabesque. (3)
In That Obscure Object of Desire, the train scenes act as the straight line, the thread running through the picture. Italo Calvino has also commented on this side of the director’s work: “In Buñuel there is a classicism akin to that of a Renaissance novelist and I think it comes through above all in the films he made in France; characters that find themselves in a place in the country, or the meeting of characters with a story to tell, as in his final film.” (4)
Mathieu first meets 18-year-old Conchita when she starts working for him as a maid and he soon becomes besotted. When he first tries to seduce her she leaves, much to his bewilderment. As the story progresses, Buñuel shows how their paths continue to cross; at times it’s Mathieu doing the chasing, sometimes it’s Conchita that returns. Bouquet and Molina alternate – often in the same scene – with Conchita teasing, even humiliating Mathieu who is frequently reduced to nothing more than an exasperated voyeur. The subjectivity of Mathieu’s tale means that dramatic events outside the closed world of his all-consuming passion are mostly elided. His story is punctuated by episodes of terrorist violence (bombings, shootings) and while his protagonist is rarely caught up in these horrific moments, Buñuel clearly seeks to make links between political and (potential) sexual violence. A perfect example of this occurs when a late-night shooting outside his home interrupts one of Mathieu’s attempts to have his way with Conchita (5). In Buñuel’s film, notes Kovács, “Conchita is a provocation, an essentially subversive force forever egging Mathieu on to violence. She is as much a representative of terrorism as are the subversive groups which perpetrate political terrorism throughout the film.” (6) In his memoir My Last Breath, the director himself confirms this key duality: “In addition to the theme of the impossibility of truly possessing a woman’s body, the film insists upon maintaining that climate of insecurity and imminent disaster – an atmosphere we all recognise, because it is our own.” (7) His protagonist may be detached from reality, but That Obscure Object of Desire proves that Buñuel certainly was not; even in his final years, Don Luis was as lucidly provocative as ever.
- Katherine Singer Kovács, “Luis Buñuel and Pierre Louÿs: Two Visions of Obscure Objects”, Cinema Journal vol. 19, no. 1, Autumn 1979, p. 92.
- Given he is playing a sophisticated Frenchman, it’s entirely appropriate that in this film Rey’s voice is dubbed by Michel Piccoli.
- Octavio Paz, “Buñuel’s Philosophical Cinema”, On Poets and Others, Arcade Books, New York, 1990, p. 159.
- Italo Calvino, “L’anima e il gioco blasfemo”, La Repubblica 31 July-1 August 1983, in Italo Calvino, Saggi 1945-1985, Mondadori, Milano, 1995, p. 1951. Author’s translation.
- It’s among Buñuel’s most awkward love scenes – think the “Do Aphrodisiacs Work?” episode of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), only with fewer laughs and with a far less willing partner.
- Kovács, p. 93.
- Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath, trans. Abigail Israel, Vintage, London, 2003, p. 250.
Cet obscure objet du désir/That Obscure Object of Desire (1977 France/Spain 102 mins)
Prod Co: Greenwich Film Production – Paris/Les Films Galaxie – Paris/Incine – Madrid Prod: Serge Silberman Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière, inspired Pierre Louÿs’ novel La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet) Phot: Edmond Richard Ed: Hélène Plemiannikov Prod Des: Pierre Guffroy
Cast: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Ángela Molina, Julien Bertheau, André Weber, Milena Vukotic