That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and The Duellists (1977)
"This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger." - The Duellists
Most of the films of 1977 are obscured by the tidal wave of Star Wars, but among other things it produced the last film of one of cinema's true visionaries, Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, and the first film of another of cinema's true visionaries, Ridley Scott's The Duellists.
Each is a story of "an eccentric kind of hunger" - in the case of The Duellists, it is the hunger for honor. Keith Carradine's Napoleonic soldier d'Hubert doesn't know why his fellow soldier, Harvey Keitel's Féraud, wants so badly to fight him, but his deep and inarticulate ("honor is... indescribable, unchallengeable," he strains) need to preserve his honor locks them into a years-long series of increasingly violent duels. Against this, France's bloody wars unspool, hardly noticed and bleeding into one another.
In That Obscure Object of Desire, it is Mathieu's (Fernando Rey) hunger for sex which drives the action. The film charts the years-long foreplay of a sexual cat and mouse game between Mathieu and Conchita, his one-time maid played brilliantly and interchangeably by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Against this, a bloody French revolution unspools, hardly noticed by the wealthy protagonist.
What strikes me about That Obscure Object of Desire is the way each sexual encounter mutates into a bitter power struggle. Mathieu hardly knows a thing about Conchita, but he speaks deeply and constantly of his love for her. This is because he wants to conquer her. For him, sex itself is a fetish. It's a symbol of his power. d'Hubert treats honor in much the same way. It's a perverse worldview of his - he must maintain, no matter how insane a choice it is.
We never quite know the motives of Féraud or Conchita, but it's clear that their dark secret involves sublimating passion into power - the only real difference is that Féraud's is an angry passion, Conchita's an erotic one.
Each sexual encounter and each duel seems to promise fulfillment. One man will die, and Mathieu and Conchita will finally have sex. Yet time and time again, from nation to nation, room to room, year to year, fulfillment is denied. The duellists stubbornly survive, the lovers stubbornly refuse to make love.
Sex and death spin at the center of Luis Buñuel's work and at the center of Ridley Scott's, and here in the final and first films of their respective careers, they both reached at the same study of drawn-out, obsessive hungers. They're practically the same film... aside from the fact that they're totally different.