Luis Bunuel's style has grown so elegant that one is almost obliged to admire it apart from the content of his movies in order to find those movies rewarding. Perfecting the means of expression seems to have refined the tensions and emotional undercurrents out of his subject matter. Bunuel, now virtually deaf and approaching his 18th birthday, has become so serene that he tends to transcend the irrational rather than expose or illuminate it.
Watching a movie as unruffled and seamless as the latest Bunuel, "That Obscure Object of Desire," now at the K-B Baronet West and K-B Cerberus, is certainly an esthetic pleasure up to a point. The experience is similar to listening to a speaker with flawless diction and grammar or reading flawlessly objective prose. However, one can also be lulled to sleep by stylistic perfection, and "Obscure Object" is not immune from this hazard. It may be a masterpiece, but it's the sort of masterpiece that's casy to doze off on.
The scenario by Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere is a shaggy-dog, erotic satire inspired by Pierre Louys' novella "The Woman and the Puppet," the source for several earlier movies, including the Dietrich-Sternberg "The Devil Is a Woman" in 1935 Fernando rey is excellent as the frustrated gentleman puppet of Bunuel's adaptation, a well-to-do widower who keeps hoping in vain to achieve a sexual cosummation with the young woman he falls in love with an enigmatically perverse temptress named Conchita.
Bunuel has accentuated the enigma of the temptress' motives by casting two actress, in the role. Tall, angular Carole Bouquet betrays nothing but a faintly superior smile, Short, sultry Angela Molina looks more responsive and accessible, but the women appear to be deployed alternately and interchangeably. It would probably be an exercise in futility to brood about why one actress turned up in one scene and not in another.
Rey brings undeniable emotional conviction to his role, and the rare affecting moments derive from his inherent dignity and courtliness, which look peculiarly vulnerable when his frustration and rage finally erupt. Rey might be as effective an image of deluded masculinity as Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel," but "Obscure Object" is not orchestrated for chilling expressions of sexual betraval or anger. Even the intermittent depictions of terrorist bombings and crimes in the street have a casual, debonair tone. It's as if Bunuel had achieved such peace of mind that he couldn't quite take the misery of his protagonist seriously.
One of the recurrent symbols in the film is a bulky sack lugged around by several characters, including the protagonist. At the end this sack - or one like it - turns up in the display window of a lingerie shop and is seen to contain women's night-gowns, including a torn, bloodstained gown that a seamstrees begins to repair. One gets the idea, but it doesn't have satisflying quality of revelation. Like that seamstress, Bunuel has become a little too absorbed in his stichey to concern himself with the pattern of the gown or the sources of those stains.