I began with Buñuel’s early Surrealist works and have now jumped over forty-five years ahead to the end of his career. Though his vehement anti-Catholicism and willingness to offend has always been offputting, I do admire, having seen That Obscure Object of Desire, the cohesion of his work, that he has the same touch of black comedy and erotic fascination that he did in both Un Chien Andalou and L’Âge d’Or. I also admire the puzzling moral positions of his characters, the respectable man who desires the virginal woman and what is entailed both by his passion and her refusal to giver herself completely to him. Desire factors in almost every decision for Flabert, played by Fernando Rey, who not only ardently yearns for Conchita, but who believes he can get what he wants by playing on the desires of others. Conchita ostensibly wants nothing, neither money nor sex, and she recoils when he attempts to buy her from his mother. When they are finally together as man and mistress, she denies him her flesh. Through this denial, she casts a peculiar light on Flabert that illustrates the savagery and foolishness of his pursuit and would seem to suggest that true love can only exist if the fulfillment of sexual desire is withheld. But instead, this prolonging becomes a spiral of jealousy, decay, and frustrating moral ambiguity. Played by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, Conchita is endlessly mysterious and her temperament ever subject to sudden shifts and changes. She remains a virgin throughout, but her actions become ever more rash and hard to decipher.
It’s a thoughtful and enigmatic story, made all the more strange by the bizarre present-tense sequences, in which Flabert proudly tells his story to fellow train passengers, all of whom appear to be strange caricatures of respectable civilians. One of the first notable incidents in the film is Flabert’s pouring a bucket of water on Conchita’s head, and at the end of the film she reciprocates by doing the same to him, as if the brutal beating she endured the morning before was absolutely meaningless, and surely enough the two are soon back together yet again. The ending may provide some insight into this final absurdity, one that seems to communicate that their game will go on ad infinitum, by taking the theme of terrorism that has always been present, and using it to put an explosive end to everything. The shocking, freeze-frame ending, together with both the image of a woman mending a torn dress behind sound-proof glass and the soothing music that plays a moment after the loudspeakers announce an alliance between terrorist organizations, suggests that throughout all of Flabert’s and Conchita’s cat-and-mouse game, in which everything that has mattered is the immediacy of desire, they have been almost entirely oblivious to the real world, shrugging off encounters with violent radicals as if they were inconsequential impediments, and that perhaps all is arbitrary and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. With That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel appears less a provocateur and more a refined moralist, and I am ever more inclined to seek out more of his films.