That Obscure Object of Desire

Carole Bouquet and Fernando Rey in That Obscure Object of Desire [Cet obscur objet du désir] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1976).

Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina.

Buñuel's final film, and a rich one. It departs from the anti-narrative track he was following in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, offering a largely faithful modernization of Pierre Louÿs' novel La femme et le pantin. The two most conspicuous innovations he and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere make are the insertion of a terrorism theme (a theme initiated in the two previous films just mentioned) and, most audaciously, the device of having two different women (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina) play Conchita, the lead female character. This counter-realist gesture is especially striking in that there is no pattern whatsoever as to when one actor plays Conchita rather than the other, beyond Buñuel's conscious decision to give each one roughly equal screen time, and to confine individual scenes for the most part to one actor (though this latter "rule" is broken subtly once or twice).

The accounts of how this dual casting came about are a little confusing and inconsistent, but the best I can make it out is that, after already losing Maria Schneider, who was originally slated to play Conchita but objected to all the nude scenes (despite having been naked for most of Last Tango in Paris), Buñuel grew dissatisfied with Bouquet's performance and replaced her with Molina--but then realized that, rather than having to film certain scenes all over again, he could keep the footage he had already shot and just integrate it with the new. (I have to say, as an exception to my general belief that Buñuel could do no wrong, I can't get my mind around the idea of objecting to anything whatsoever about Bouquet.)

As Buñuel has commented in interviews, his intention was emphatically not to have the two actors represent different "sides" of Conchita's personality, or anything like that. And as he has also remarked, this is a good thing, as that would have been an egregiously facile gimmick. The double casting cannot ultimately be rationalized into any psychological or symbolic system of order: it's pure anarchy, a boldly random anamorphic streak across the otherwise (mostly) conventionally representational canvas of the film.

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