I could watch Fernando Rey—the reliable scoundrel of four Luis Buñuel films—squirm for hours, so amusing are the aristocratically clownish expressions that play on his face. And that’s mostly what That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel’s last film, consists of: another Rey gentlemen repeatedly thwarted in his attempts at sexual satiation.
Here Rey plays Mathieu, an aging nobleman who instantly falls for his new chambermaid, Conchita, and spends years trying to woo her—even after she quits on her first night because of his unwanted advances.
The story opens on a train car, where Mathieu recounts their stormy relationship to his fellow passengers (hence most of what we see is in flashback). Throwing a formal wrinkle in things is the fact that Conchita is played by two different actresses: the reserved and sophisticated Carole Bouquet and the playful and lively Angela Molina. Besides those basic characteristics, the performances are quite similar. It seems the gambit is meant to say less about Conchita than it does about Mathieu: this could be any woman, really, as Mathieu seems to be driven purely by the idea of desire rather than the hope of connecting with a specific person.
As Mathieu and Conchita go back and forth over the years, with her warming up to him and promising to be his mistress, but then repeatedly denying him when they finally get to the bedroom, That Obscure Object of Desire becomes a bit repetitive, save for the amusement of Mathieu’s increasing frustration. In the background of all this are allusions to terrorist attacks taking place across France and Spain, which Mathieu regards as little more than a nuisance. If his object of desire is obscure, perhaps it’s because he’s prioritized desire itself above everything else.