A wealthy old man boards a train and then dumps a bucket of water on a beautiful girl pursuing him. He sits down with a psychologist, a magistrate, and a young mother to explain why in 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir). The final film of the surrealist master, Luis Bunuel, it portrays the relationship between the frustrated old man and the enigmatic woman with captivating comedy, drama, and dream logic. This film manages to convey some things very true about the nature of desire.
Mathieu (Fernando Rey) visits the home of a friend where he finds himself enchanted by the new housemaid, Conchita, played by the cool and statuesque Carole Bouquet. He correctly deduces by her mannerisms and delicate hands that she doesn't come from a working class background. It turns out she's a flamenco dancer from Seville.
When Mathieu confronts her about her past, the actress playing Conchita inexplicably changes to the sultrier Angela Molina. Conchita's actress will change between Bouquet and Molina throughout the film. Mathieu's fascination with her increases and she claims to return his affection. Time and time again, though, just as they're going to consummate their relationship, Conchita finds some reason to abstain. Sometimes it's as simple as not being in the mood, sometimes it's an intricately laced pair of shorts Mathieu finds impossible to remove.
Or something equally absurd. Sometimes Conchita seemingly reveals that she'd been stringing Mathieu along just for his money, other times she seemingly reveals her apparent cruelty was only a means of keeping his passion inflamed. She claims to do such things only because she fears losing him. Is she telling the truth? What does she believe about her own motivations? The answer is no clearer than the one about why she's played by a tag team.
The film abounds in clues. Somehow they all seem deeply meaningful even as it's impossible to add them up in a way that closes the case.
Occasionally a man is seen carrying a dirty burlap sack. In one scene, Mathieu carries it himself. Throughout the film, left-wing groups perpetuate random terrorist attacks. In one scene, Mathieu's driver is beaten and killed by terrorists and Mathieu is left by the side of the road. He's shaken but, by the time he gets home, Conchita dominates his thoughts again. Which should be edifying for any terrorists watching--no bomb, no hijacking, no mass slaughter can compete in the imagination with an unsatisfied romantic urge. That much, at least, is clear.
That Obscure Object of Desire is available on The Criterion Channel.