In a Paris plagued by terrorist attacks, aging lothario Mathieu Faber (Fernando Rey) boards a train while a young woman implores him to stay. He dumps a bucket of water on her before calmly taking his seat. His fellow passengers, who include a smart-dressed woman (Milena Vukotic), her little daughter (Valérie Blanco) and a dwarf professor of psychology (Pierre Pieral) are understandably curious about such unusual behaviour, so he tells them the whole story. All about how Mathieu grew infatuated with beautiful, tempestuous Conchita (played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), whose response to his advances seemingly changed from one moment to the next. As Mathieu pursues the object of his desire, he falls prey to one romantic frustration after another, but is Conchita really the wilful, manipulative minx our narrator paints her to be?
Although Luis Buñuel made his share of sharp social dramas, it is those surrealist satires he made throughout the Sixties and Seventies that are his defining work. For his farewell to cinema, Buñuel chose to adapt Pierre Louÿs’ 1898 novel “La Femme et le Pantin” (The Woman and the Puppet”), that had been twice filmed previously including a silent movie in 1928 by Jacques de Baroncelli - which also included the daring naked flamenco dance from Conchita that Buñuel happily recreates here, bless him - and the Marlene Dietrich vehicle, The Devil is a Woman (1935) by Josef von Sternberg. Of course Buñuel’s version is unmistakeably his own, notably his conceit of having Conchita switch between coquettish, evasive Carole Bouquet and fiery, forthright Angela Molina. This idea was hastily conceived after original lead Maria Schneider (of Last Tango in Paris (1972)) proved less than co-operative, but in retrospect is genuinely inspired. Some claimed not to even notice the female lead was really two different actresses, at least on first viewing, and the film went on to bring both a degree of international stardom - especially the alluring Bouquet who remains one of the most underrated of all Bond girls in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Adding a further layer of ambiguity, Fernando Rey’s voice is dubbed by another reoccurring Buñuel player, Michel Piccoli although this was equally due to the Spanish actor’s health problems at the time.
Peppered with sly jokes and innocuous ambiguities (e.g. the mysterious sack, a woman carrying a piglet as her baby) it is less overtly comedic than Buñuel’s masterly The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) but bears his wry wit as the aging auteur revels in the wild, unfettered side of the subconscious mind manifest through sexual obsession. And though Mathieu is at pains to portray himself as the wronged party - an urbane, yet morally upright and lovelorn hero, where Conchita is a calculating tease - Buñuel was never one to let a self-aggrandising bourgeoisie off lightly.
The unreliable narrator is a tricky thing to pull off outside of novels. Buñuel audaciously gives Mathieu full vent to air his frustrations, but along the way punctuates the narrative with little niggles of uncertainty. When Mathieu, losing all patience, brutalizes Conchita who responds with “Now, I know you love me”, Buñuel invites us to doubt the sincerity of this moment. Despite the vast age gap, Mathieu initially conducts his courtship of the teenage Conchita in that uniquely non-sordid, elegant, dare I say European manner but this is precisely what Buñuel attacks. Not sexual desire, Buñuel never had much problem with that, but the hypocrisy that underlies Mathieu’s actions. He delves into the tension between sophisticated surface and innermost desires that are less polite, often childish and even disturbing. Mathieu complains Conchita is leading him on, she knows he wants only to “buy her like furniture”, just sex without love. Both are right in their own way. She knows the value of her virginity and won’t surrender it easily, he won’t agree to marriage since it is the “last weapon” he has. So each resorts to tarring the other as aging lech and wanton devil-woman, warring and reconciling, unable to connect but driven together by a biological imperative. Along the way, Buñuel poses some uncomfortable questions: can anyone ever truly know what goes on inside someone else’s mind? And does desire alone entitle one to possess another.
As an anarchist, Buñuel relishes the anti-authoritarian terrorist explosions that shatter the self-involved bourgeois mood, but these are one area where the film has dated, less liable to amuse in the light of current events.