THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Charles Ramírez Berg
As I wrote last week, Luis Buñuel’s (1900-1983) directing career may be divided into three distinct stages: the early avant-garde experiments, 1929-1933; the Mexican studio films, 1946-1965; and his mature European phase, 1965-1977. Last Tuesday we watched Los Olvidados (1950), a stirring example of his second stage and one of the most honored films in Mexican cinema history. Tonight’s film, Cet obscure objet de désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977), is an excellent example of Buñuel’s third stage—which is saying something, considering that all seven of his late European features are Surrealist masterworks.
Buñuel’s return to European filmmaking after two decades of directing more than 20 films in Mexico was gradual. In the midst of his productive Mexican period, he directed two films in Europe: Cela s’appelle l’aurore (That Is the Dawn, 1956) and Le journal d’une femme de chamber (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964), starring Jeanne Moreau. Diary of a Chambermaid was especially well received, and together with a Mexican-Spanish co-production Buñuel made in Spain, Viridiana (1961), they paved the way for his full-fledged return to Europe, initiated by the release of one of his most celebrated and controversial films, Belle de Jour (1967), starring Catherine Deneuve.
It was on Diary of a Chambermaid that he began collaborating with the prolific screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who would co-write nine films with Buñuel, and see six of them produced: Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, Le vole lactée (The Milky Way, 1969), Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972), Le fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974), and tonight’s film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Working with him on and off for two decades, Carrière gives us as good a description of Buñuel the man and filmmaker as ever written. “Buñuel was a man of a number of contradictions,” Carrière wrote after the director’s death at age 83,
any one of which would paralyze an ordinary man but which he endured with grace. For example, he was imbued with Catholic culture and at the same time was determinedly antireligious. He was a subversive filmmaker and yet led a very bourgeois life. He was very Spanish and completely international. He was an instinctive scriptwriter, a surrealist, while still being very concerned with structure, plot development, order.
Buñuel‘s last European phase represents a return in several senses. For the Spaniard Buñuel, it was a coming home to his European roots. And since his last five films were all made in France, it was a return to the scene of his first notorious filmmaking experiments, the Surrealist classics Un Chien Andalou (The Andalousian Dog, 1929) and L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930), both made and premiered in Paris. Finally, with these films Buñuel returned to his life-long fascination with Surrealism. For some artists, Surrealism may have been just a phase, a youthful style adopted when it was in vogue in the 1920s, then outgrown and discarded. But in Buñuel’s case, it was more than a fleeting style, more even than a movement — it was simply the way he saw the world.
That being the case, it may be worthwhile to say a little about Surrealism, its origins and goals, as well as Buñuel’s fascination with it.
Buñuel and Surrealism
Surrealism’s aim was to expand the idea of reality by recognizing the importance of dreams. In The Surrealist Manifesto (Le Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924), its founder, André Breton (1896-1966), wondered why the accepted notion of reality was limited to waking life. Why were dreams and dreaming, which consume so much of our lives, excluded? Why do we lend “so much more credence . . . to waking events than to those occurring in dreams”? Breton proposed redefining reality to include dreams, and he christened this all-encompassing super-reality “Surrealism.”
Beyond making way for dream imagery, as an art movement Surrealism rejected traditional art and aggressively sought to destroy outmoded concepts of establishment art. And it went further, aiming to take down the entire social structure with it. As Buñuel later put it, “The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.” The Surrealists’ principle weapon in this campaign was scandal, meant to shock the system out of its complacency and turn it in a new direction.
It was a movement affecting all the arts, but one of the most famous, notorious, and purest examples of surrealism in any art form was Buñuel’s first film, Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog). Co-written by him and another young Spaniard living in Paris, the painter Salvador Dali, the 16-minute film was made in 1929 with financing provided by Buñuel’s mother. Their script was fashioned from their dream images and their basic filmmaking method, as Buñuel later described it, was very simple. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted,” Buñuel said. “We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.”
While Un Chien Andalou caused quite a stir, Buñuel’s next film, L’Age d’Or, caused a riot. During one screening, members of the “League of Patriots” and the “Anti-Semitic League” launched stink bombs, attacked members of the audience, splattered ink on the screen, and destroyed artwork by some of the leading surrealist artists on display in the lobby. The police responded by banning the film. Except for viewings in small cine clubs, the film was largely unseen for nearly 50 years.
As a director, Buñuel later said, he was completely free when he made these films. They consisted of a series of strange situations and bizarre events held together with only a thin thread of plot. When he began directing feature films in Mexico, however, he was strapped with commercial responsibilities and obligated to make traditional entertainments that never strayed too far from formulaic genre narratives. When he could, however, he smuggled in surreal touches (like superimposing the image of a running dog over a shot of the dying Jaibo in Los Olvidados), so that by the end of his Mexican period, in films like Viridiana (1961), El Ángel Exterminador (1962), and Simón del disierto (1965), he had a free hand again. By the time he returned to Europe in the mid-1960s, he was in full Surrealist mode.
But what he had learned in the intervening years was not to reject traditional narrative, but to embrace it — the shock of a surreal element suddenly appearing within a realistic story only heightened the mystifying effect he was after. This, he argued, was precisely how Surrealism should operate. “Not everything,” he said, “had to be Surrealist in a painting by a Surrealist painter, only one small detail that logically shouldn’t be there.”
Which brings us to tonight’s film, Buñuel’s last, made when he was 77 years old. It is a purely Surrealist movie, and one that is in its own way just as brazen, shocking, and scandalous as Un Chien Andalou was 48 years before. In it, Buñuel utilized the familiar story of a man’s obsessive pursuit of a beautiful woman as a vehicle for several small Surrealist details — and one large one — that “logically shouldn’t be there,” details that disrupt our usual movie-watching expectations.
When That Obscure Object of Desire was released, it was greeted enthusiastically, winning its share of awards (Buñuel won Best Director awards from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics, and the film was named Best Foreign Language Film by the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association). But it also upset its share critics and viewers, and may well upset some of you tonight. It is a film about unfulfilled desire, but it is not only the character of Mathieu (Fernando Rey) whose goal is continually thwarted. Being true to his Surrealist principles to the very end, Buñuel frustrates us too as he coolly examines the spectacle of male sexual longing, the power of female intransigence, and — amazingly, astonishingly — the very nature of movie storytelling.
 Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 107.
 Buñuel, My Last Sigh, p. 104.