The final film in director Luis Buñuel's magnificent filmography, 'That Obscure Object of Desire' continues the filmmaker's unique, surrealist, and often oblique stylings with a humorously brutal glimpse into the notions of obsession, yearning, possession and autonomy that is highlighted by a cleverly understated visual manipulation of the story in which two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, portray the titular object of desire, Conchita, who changes and effectively ruins the life of a wealthy, indulgent, but overly possessive businessman.
Prolific Spanish actor Fernando Rey, who had previously worked with Buñuel on 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,' 'Tristana' and 'Viridana' – though he's most likely known to American audiences as the slippery criminal Alain Charnier in the Academy Award-winning crime drama 'The French Connection' – teamed up with the director one final time as the aforementioned wealthy businessman Mathieu, or Don Matteo. Rey's Mathieu is at first simply a somewhat lecherous older man who is immediately taken by the beauty of his newly appointed maid, Conchita, but Mathieu soon finds that although he can provide her with nearly unlimited material gain, she rebuffs his sexual advances, refusing to give herself over to Mathieu, despite mutual claims of true affection between the two.
'That Obscure Object of Desire' turns on its assessment of both Mathieu's intense desire – one so powerful and concentrated that he cannot tell the woman he's so enraptured by is (depending on how you choose to look at the film) two different women – as well as the physical and emotional transience of Conchita – which accounts for the dual performances by Bouquet and Molina. At its surface, it is a surreal glimpse into carnality and asceticism wherein a man unfamiliar with refusal seeks to possess something beautiful. Try as he might, Mathieu's deep pockets, luxurious lifestyle and generous nature fail to fully ensnare Conchita, to entice her to give herself over to him.
Buñuel and his frequent co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière brilliantly depict what begins as a forbidden relationship: a lustful longing for a woman decades a wealthy man's junior, and turn it into a maddening pursuit of gratification that remains as unobtainable as a woman who is so impermanent, transient and intangible that she's comprised of two different people. Conchita does as she pleases; she is a free spirit, and yet in her free spiritedness, she is moving against social practices, and the loosening of moral standards that were rapidly becoming more conventional at the time.
There are suggestions that the two women play Conchita depending on the shifts in her mood, and, to a certain extent, that is true. But Buñuel and Carrière aren't playing by such hard-and-fast rules as to which actress inhabits the character at any given moment; they don't want to make it that easy. It is accurate to state that one of the women – probably Bouquet – gives the colder, more distant and aloof performance, while Molina is far more passionate, but still transitory – exemplified in her becoming a nude flamenco dancer and by appearing to give herself to a young musician in front of Mathieu while he's on the other side of a locked gate. Despite what appears to be firm differences between the two actresses, Buñuel manages to create a gray area they both inhabit that keeps Conchita capricious, impulsive and, most importantly inconstant.
But the film is more multifaceted than the examination of one man's possessive desire, and the said object's attempt at refuting social mores, which had become almost commonplace thanks to the sexual revolution, the power of feminist movement and the availability of birth control. 'That Obscure Object of Desire' also takes place against the backdrop of a terrorist uprising, which plays into Buñuel's frequent examinations of subversive cultures and anti-establishment movements. This kind of thematic layering is commonplace in Buñuel's films, and he does his best to augment it with the addition of sometimes-divisive mysteries or ambiguous visual cues, like a fly in Mathieu's martini, the burlap sack he's seen carrying on occasion and, especially, the pig wrapped up and carried like a child by a woman in a Seville courtyard.
Buñuel purposely keeps many of these aspects from having clear, straightforward answers; and in doing so, the film not only lives up to its title, but he also makes 'That Obscure Object of Desire' something worthy of discussion, decades after its initial release. This is fitting not only for one of Buñuel's films – which frequently caused debate and spawned incredibly divisive opinions – but it is also an example of how a director, known for his biting wit and satirical eye could still craft such an insightful, sardonic film, targeting materialism, political upheaval and the corrosion of modern societal ethics, at such a late stage in his career. This may be Buñuel's final work, but it still stands as one of his finest.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Hailing from Studio Canal and Lionsgate, 'That Obscure Object of Desire' is a single disc in the average keep case, featuring the same cover art as its European release. The disc moves right into the top menu, which then allows the viewer to choose between the original audio track and its dubbed counterpart. While this release appears to have all of the supplements of the European release, it does not include the booklet with an essay on the film that was a part of that edition.
The restoration on 'That Obscure Object of Desire' looks to have been painstakingly crafted to truly give this film new life. To be honest, 1977 wasn’t really that long ago, and Buñuel's work was, by that time, something to have been recognized, so there's no reason for the film to have fallen into disarray or to require technicians to go to incredible lengths in order to make it look beautiful again. Even so, the end result of the restoration for this Blu-ray is quite good.
Presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen, the image has likely never looked sharper, the colors never so vibrant and the fine detail so readily present as they all are here. In comparison to past DVD releases of the title, this Studio Canal presentation stands a cut above the rest. There has been significant improvement to not only the overall detail, but the color quality and depth of the image as well. Daytime colors stand out in particular, but there are plenty of low light examples where colors remain robust and fine detail as sharp as ever.
To that end, the restoration process should be commended for its restraint in retaining the look and feel of the original presentation. Too often a restored product like this will be rife with too much sharpening, or work done to remove defining elements of its time. Thankfully, the image here shows almost no negative traces of post-production work like excessive sharpening or removal of film grain.
For all the effort put into the restoration, it is not perfect, however. There is one occasion where the image drops prodigiously, losing color, contrast, and appearing to slip out of frame for a brief moment. There are also times when the scene will lose a frame or two, making an awkward and noticeable jump cut when the scene isn't really focusing on anything. Considering the director involved, this may be deliberate, in which case it is yet another aspect of this film to ponder, but it is worth nothing either way.
This is a very good restoration of the film, which manages to be a significant upgrade, while still retaining the film's original qualities.
'That Obscure Object of Desire' has been given an audio upgrade in the form of a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 French and English mix that sounds remarkably good and robust for its age. The mix presents its dialogue – regardless of the language you listen to it in – with a crispness and clarity that one would expect from a film that's been given a restoration of this magnitude.
What's noticeable about this film is that it really doesn't contain a major musical score, so it relies almost entirely on the dialogue and some ambient environmental effects. That being said, all of the available elements here sound as good as they are likely to ever get, so there's almost nothing to complain about. The restoration of the audio mix also has removed almost all traces of distortion that normally accompany films made so long ago. As mentioned, dialogue is clean and easily understood, although there are occasions where the pitch seems to go a little off, but it's not a deal breaker.
Ultimately, this is a balanced audio mix that offers good clarity when it comes to dialogue and although most of the sound effects are unexceptional, they are free of distortion.
A journey into surrealism and the social and sexual politics of the time, 'That Obscure Object of Desire' is an exquisite film from a celebrated director that, after threatening to retire several times, would actually prove to be Buñuel's final film. There have been those – Quentin Tarantino being the most recent – who believe that as a director's career progresses, he or she looses their initial edge, the spark that drove them to express their ideas and beliefs through film. If anything, Luis Buñuel's final film disputes that notion with a great deal of assurance. Not only is this some of his best work, it illustrates just how well the director understood his craft, his audience and the messages he wished to convey. He has been tagged as something of an iconoclast, and, perhaps it is the manner in which he so wryly attacked such settled beliefs that make his films so enduring and so memorable. Considering it comes with some excellent special features that will be of interest to longtime Buñuel fans and novices alike, as well as the wonderful transfer given to the film, this new edition of 'That Obscure Object of Desire' comes highly recommended.