There’s a unique quality to the films of director Luis Buñuel’s late period, neither wholly comic nor serious, less cutting than his earlier work, more deadpan and more graceful. That Obscure Object of Desire, first released in 1977, was Buñuel’s last film (which is as late period as it gets) and it reflects the shifty, shifting mood of a seasoned absurdist. Adapting this project from the same novel which was the source of the Dietrich-Von Sternberg vehicle, The Devil is a Woman (1935), Buñuel and his frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière have essentially jettisoned the original femme fatale story for something more psychologically uncertain, and set it in modern France and Spain against a backdrop of escalating terrorism.
The fool at the center of the story is the wealthy businessman Matieu (played by Buñuel regular Fernando Rey, who looks like a distinguished basset hound) and the object of desire is Conchita, played by two different actresses, one French and one Spanish, something that came about when the original actress signed for the part, Maria Schneider, didn’t work out. Buñuel has said that using two actresses to play the same character was a whim and that his only calculation was that each actress get the same amount of scenes, regardless of the scene’s content. In which case it’s a happy accident that the two actresses — Carole Bouquet, cool and somewhat withdrawn, and Angela Molina, earthy and more spontaneous — always seem to fit the mood of the moment, to the extent that when Bouquet disappears into the bathroom for a minute and Molina walks out, you know it means that things are going to get more heated.
Conchita, probably at least 30 years younger than Matieu, strings the older man along, offering him everything except what he wants (which, of course, is sex), while he plies her and her mother, a pious pimp, with money and gifts. And the more she denies him, the more his desire grows into an obsession, oblivious that his world is crumbling from within and without. It’s Buñuel’s last hardy chuckle at human folly and at the deluding veil of order we drape over our precarious lives.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.