That Obscure Object of Desire
Luis Buñuel’s final film brings full circle the director’s lifelong preoccupation with the darker side of desire. Buñuel regular Fernando Rey plays Mathieu, an urbane widower, tortured by his lust for the elusive Conchita. With subversive flair, Buñuel uses two different actors in the latter role—Carole Bouquet, a sophisticated French beauty, and Ángela Molina, a Spanish coquette. Drawn from the surrealist favorite Pierre Louÿs’s classic erotic novel La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet, 1898), That Obscure Object of Desire is a dizzying game of sexual politics punctuated by a terror that harks back to Buñuel’s avant-garde beginnings.
Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, re-enters The Criterion Collection and is presented on the third dual-layer disc in Criterion’s box set Three Films by Luis Buñuel. The film is yet again presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. It has also been given a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
Like the other two films in the set (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty) Criterion is simply using an older high-definition master (sourced from a 35mm interpositive) and it looks to be the same one they used for their previous DVD edition. This isn’t terrible, and I’d go as far to say this ends up providing the best-looking presentation in the set, but it is still open to improvement.
In all, there is a decent film-like quality to the image. It’s not great, film grain looking a bit muddled in places, but it’s acceptable. This leads to decent details and the image remains sharp and clear throughout. I haven’t seen the StudioCanal disc (released by Lionsgate in North America) but based on clips from the film used throughout the features ported from that edition and found on this edition, it appears that the StudioCanal release had some de-graining applied, giving the image a waxy texture (if those clips are representative of the StudioCanal release), which the Criterion edition happily doesn’t do. It’s worth noting that this is the only film in the set that doesn’t open with the new StudioCanal logo, so it’s possible Criterion isn’t using the same restoration/master that the StudioCanal releases are.
As to colours, they’re fine. They can look a little washed and lean warm but don’t come off overly yellow, and they look similar to the DVD. Blues and reds manage to stick out. Black levels are touch-and-go: generally they’re strong but a few darker shots look murky. Further restoration has been done and outside of a few minor marks damage is minimal, and compression is also better in comparison to Criterion's older DVD. In the end it’s fine enough, it’s just that the film could really use a new restoration.
Criterion includes two soundtracks, both in 1.0 mono: the original French, presented in lossless PCM, and an English dub in Dolby Digital. The French soundtrack is the better sounding of the two, with better fidelity and clarity. Dialogue sounds clear and the few explosions that happen in the film manage to show some range, though limited.
The English track is flatter and presents more background noise. The English dubbing for Fernando Rey is also hard to take (it's worth nothing that while I don't know who dubs Rey in the English version, Michel Piccoli dubs over Rey in the French version). I'll stick to the French track but I still like that Criterion included the English version, if just for curiosity's sake.
Similar to the other titles in the set, Criterion ports over the features from their previous DVD edition while also adding some new content. Along with the film’s theatrical trailer, Criterion ports over the 19-minute interview featuring screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere. Carriere talks extensively about how he and Buñuel worked together, which usually involved them living together for weeks or months. The writer then gets into how Buñuel came up with the idea of casting two actors in the same role, which was born out of frustration (Buñuel had initially cast Maria Schneider and he found it difficult to work with her).
Also included here are three scenes from Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1929 silent film, Le femme et le pantin, an adaptation of the same novel That Obscure Object of Desire is based on. The notes indicate that Buñuel had seen the film several times and based on the scenes here it’s easy to see that it did inspire him, at least in small ways. The scenes featured include: Conchita’s dance, the scene where Conchita humiliates Mateo/Mathieu, and the beating scene. Though Buñuel’s film takes each scene a little further (Buñuel's beating scene is far more graphic, nudity and sex are more explicit in the other two), you can see how elements from this film make their way into his. I would have loved to get the whole film, but I’m not sure how prohibitive that would have been. Unfortunately, the footage is ported directly from the DVD, and is presented in interlaced standard-definition. The notes, like with the DVD, provide the chapter index for the matching scene in the main feature.
Criterion also ports over a couple of features from the StudioCanal edition, including a 16-minute piece featuring director of photography Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary, called Portait of an Impatient Filmmaker. The two talk about making the film, offering further explanation around the dual-casting for the role of Conchita (that idea bringing his spirits up after fearing he’d have to abandon the film) before each getting into how Buñuel directed and what he would put all his focus into; it’s explained he hated being a “prisoner of technical issues.”
Much better is the 37-minute Lady Doubles, featuring interviews with the two Conchitas, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Hearing the casting process is a bit amusing as it was not explained at first to either that there were two being cast for the same role, and Bouquet had actually tried out initially before the role went to Schneider, so her confusion was doubled since she thought the role had already be cast. The two actors talk about their performances as well as the other’s, Bouquet admitting to feeling more out of her element, which may have been enhanced because she felt Buñuel and Molina had more of a rapport, which Molina confirms. Scenes were also randomly assigned to each actress (it’s explained elsewhere that Buñuel was trying to avoid audiences assuming each actor represented a different side of the character) and Bouquet feels Molina may have been more suited for a few of the scenes she appeared in. It’s a really fascinating feature, the two explaining their approach to the role and how they worked with Buñuel, both of which differed greatly from the other. One of the best inclusions in the set as a whole. (Criterion’s notes indicate this feature was created in 2017, though it did appear in the 2012/2013 StudioCanal Blu-ray edition from StudioCanal).
Criterion then digs up a couple archival television segments. There is a 15-minute excerpt from a 1977 episode of Le monde du cinéma, featuring Carriere, actor Fernando Rey, and producer Serge Silberman talking about Buñuel and his latest film. There is also an extensive 31-minute episode made for a program called Allons au cinema, which gathers a number of people who had worked with the director—including Carriere, Rey, Muni, Julien Bertheau, Michel Picolli (coming in late), producer Claude Jaeger, and others—around a table sharing stories about the man and his work. I’m sure it was done more as a promotion for the release of the film but it’s a great reflection on Buñuel and I liked the loose nature of it.
A far more satisfying edition in comparison to Criterion’s original DVD release, the interview with Bouquet and Molina being the highlight. Still would have liked more academic content, though, either around Buñuel or the film itself.
Though the presentation is still open to improvement, this new Blu-ray edition still provides a solid upgrade over their previous DVD edition.