Lionsgate // 1977 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 5th, 2013
"I respect love too much to go seeking it in the back streets." -- Mathieu (Fernando Rey)
Our cultural understandings of travel have changed dramatically in the last century or so. Today, we expect celebrities to be part of the jet-set, stopping off in Milan and Paris to tout their latest creation. However, not too long ago, travel was much more associated with boats than jets. When it took days, even weeks to get somewhere, people tended to stay longer in the places they visited: if it takes three weeks to get from New York to London, it makes sense to stay in London for three months. Unsurprisingly, the more time a visitor spends in one place, the more effect that place can have. A three-month visit can change someone's life, and the effect seems to be compounded by more travel. Perhaps this explains what makes Luis Bunuel so unique as a filmmaker: he lived a lot of places. Though Spanish by birth, he had his early successes in France before going back to Spain, then the U.S., then Mexico, France again before he passed away in Mexico. The diverse geographical locations lead to one of the most consistent bodies of work in the history of film, a history that culminates in That Obscure Object of Desire. It's a classic of world cinema, and That Obscure Object of Desire (Blu-ray) gives it a presentation worthy of its status as the final gem in Bunuel's cinematic crown.
As the film opens, a train is pulling away from the station, and the elderly Mathieu (Fernando Ray, The French Connection) dumps a bucket of water on the younger Conchita (played by both Carole Bouquet, For Your Eyes Only, and Angela Molina, Broken Embraces at various points in the film) hoping to dissuade her from following him. She doesn't listen and boards the train unbeknownst to him. However, Mathieu has just been seen dumping water on a beautiful young woman and his fellow passengers take him to task for his rudeness. Throughout a series of flashbacks he explains that he has lusted after Conchita, who appears to urge him on, only to deny him any form of sexual gratification.
It doesn't take much effort to see that Bunuel got his start with by being associated with the Surrealists. Though it's problematic to label his later work Surrealist, he never seemed to give up on a certain commitment to associational logic, an obsession with sex, and a nebulous concern for the political. All three are in full force here. The associational logic primarily comes out in the casting of two actresses to play the same character. If there's a reason why they switch from scene to scene, I can't see it. Instead, their back-and-forth invites viewers to make their own way through the story, finding significance where they may. The sexual obsession is also pretty obvious. Bunuel loved to show middle-aged men attempting to indulge their baser instincts, and Mathieu is no exception. Finally, the fact that he punctuates the story of Mathieu and Conchita with outbreaks of terrorist violence demonstrates some kind of political commitment. The fact that all of this plays out in a series of beautifully shot scenes gives the film a dreamlike quality that fans of Bunuel have come to appreciate.
That Obscure Object of Desire (Blu-ray) is solid. The 1.67:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer starts from a nearly pristine print of the film. I'm surprised at how well the film has been preserved, with no serious print damage to speak of. The film's color scheme is a bit on the subdued side, but that's well represented here. Fine detail is strong, though the film is a bit softer than more modern fare. Overall it's a pleasant-looking transfer that respects the intentions of the filmmaker. The DTS-HD 2.0 sound track (in French, with an optional English dub) is much more a product of its time. The soundtrack shows a lot of evidence of looping and overdubs by different actors. Though the track is very listenable and well-balanced, it has none of the clarity and dynamic range we expect from contemporary films.
Extras for the film largely consist of interviews. The first is with Carlos Saura, an important filmmaker in his own right who had family connections with Bunuel's. He reminisces about their meeting and the effect Bunuel had on the Spanish film industry. The next interview is with Jean-Claude Carriere, who wrote not only That Obscure Object of Desire, but other Bunuel outings as well. Unsurprisingly, he talks about the writers who influenced Bunuel. The extras then switch over to interview-based featurettes. The first is a 16-minute overview of Bunuel's career and how it culminated in That Obscure Object of Desire. Finally, the disc would be incomplete without a featurette dedicated to the two female leads, and "Lady Doubles" spends almost 40 minutes look at the actresses.
Bunuel does not make mainstream films; I'm still amazed that this film won Academy Awards. Not because it's not a great film, but because it's not the kind of film that usually gets those sorts of awards. I suspect the honors were more of a lifetime achievement than a recognition of this film in particular. With that said, the film does not kowtow to viewer expectation. Having two actresses play the same character is a brilliant move, but it doesn't make the film easier to follow. Mathieu might be a sympathetic figure to some, but to many viewers he'll likely come off as a disgusting lecher. Similarly, Conchita might be an innocent maiden exploited by an older man to some, but to others she could easily seem like a tease. For some the very frank discussion of lust will be too much, especially when coupled with the nonlinear weirdness of the film's narrative.
That Obscure Object of Desire is a classic of world cinema and has been given the Blu-ray treatment it deserves here. The film is the kind of meditation on desire that only Luis Bunuel could possibly produce, and it's worth tracking down for fans of his films or of arthouse cinema more generally. The audiovisual quality and new extras make this disc pretty easy to recommend to those who own the out-of-print Criterion DVD.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* French (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated