I watched this film with my parents, & ended up having an interesting discussion with my mother on it. I'd seen Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie beforehand, which was probably helpful.
The translation of the title reads, "that obscure object of desire" which is as relevant a title as could be. It's a surrealist film, which is only directly revealed not in the strange dream-sequences Charm employs, but rather in a very simple technical element: the use of two actresses for a single female lead. The two actresses are interchanged with seeming complete subjectivity. The only easy thread to denote is perhaps that one actress plays the more "French" side whereas the other plays the more "Spanish" side -- as though the character is meant to be Spanish, she grew up partially in Paris. I've read some theorizing that the one of the sides was emotive, & the other distracting -- which is also plausible.
However most of what I want to discuss goes to the core of the meaning of a surreal film. My mom, it must be said, does not care much for the surrealists. I must admit, I never was crazy about Salvador Dali. The problem I think both of us have had to varying degrees is our own base level of empiricism that surreality ignores. Obviously, one woman can not be two women in any literal sense. But I think this is where the value of surreality can be appreciated. Surrealism has an ultimate primacy of being able to discriminate completely against "insignificant time" (as I posted on before) & even the ability to flaunt "insignificant time" as "significant time." The film itself I feel must be read as symbolic. Neither characters are particularly sympathetic in the sense that neither is particularly human. The male archetype is presented as Mathieu: older, richer, & wanting sex. The female archetype is presented as Conchita (which is short for the Spanish name Conception): young, beautiful, virginal, but sexually aware. My mom projected literal psychology on both characters as being the opposing parts of a sadomasochistic relationship, with Conchita as the sadist. I don't think it's that simple.
Conchita continually asserts a nearly narcissistic if not wholly so appreciation of her self & independence. Whenever she feels Mathieu could own her she spites him with her assertions she is physically capable of providing for herself. Mathieu, in turn, desires Conchita greatly but does not seem to love her. He makes no overtures of marriage, & in fact seems very resistant to the idea. Conchita is threatened by her "love" of Mathieu, & the loss of independence it would engender, & Mathieu is obsessed with his physical desire for Conchita.
Throughout the film Bunuel seems to throw in irrelevant information about terrorism, which is only made more silly & surreal by its treatment (one of the groups is called Revolutionary Army of the Baby Jesus, with a pantheon of other silly acronyms under it) & his seemingly repeating this device from Charm. The film, I believe, depicts what obsessive desires about self do to blind us to the obvious reality around us. In this case Conchita's narcissism & Mattieu's lust make the fact that their world is falling apart seem totally unimportant. Bunuel uses this right up till the final scene.
Before I talk about the final scene, however, I want to establish another subtle surrealist thread through the film. Mathieu carries around a bag through several of the scenes. It is very out of place because it is a cheap rucksack (Mathieu is rich) and is never given an obvious purpose. It is just a seemingly random rucksack. We find out at the end that this rucksack is filled with lace & lace nightgowns: some of which are ripped & bloody. Mathieu & Conchita drop this rucksack off at a shop, & Mathieu gestures in amazement how an middle-aged woman stitches up a hole in a beautiful blood-stained lace garment shut, as if it'd never been ripped.
The implication is not difficult to read, especially when we see Conchita's reaction, which is one of utter disgust. Mathieu is carrying around his past sexual experience, & trying to show Conchita that to be deflowered (Conchita's virginity is a topic of much conversation) does not mean one's delicate feminine beauty is ruined forever. Conchita reacts to this comment by running away from Mathieu. He catches up to her and here is where Bunuel reminds of the outside word: they are both blown up in a terrorist bombing. Their explosion is the finale.
Bunuel uses surrealism to give a prescriptive ethical message: if you are concerned only about your needs, you will be destroyed by the outside world, which does not concern itself with you. My mom didn't like the idea that this was about gender types because she said it doesn't really apply to any men or women she knows. I feel this is a bit denying, but I can admit it's not a literally applied dynamic. It is merely a symbolic message: if we took these gender roles to their extremes we would treat each other horribly, & have no consideration for the greater good. I admit this is a somewhat simple, even didactic message. But I disagree that it doesn't have meaning for reality because it does not represent reality.