In addition to a pair of silent film adaptations and a 1959 Julien Duvivier film starring Brigitte Bardot, the two most notable cinematic takes on the 1898 Pierre Louÿs novel La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet) are Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935) and Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Each film is a closing flourish of one kind or another; the first is Sternberg’s last collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, and the second, released when its director was 77 years old, is Buñuel’s final film, in which he literally goes out with a bang. The most notable stylistic gambit of the later film is the casting of two young actresses in the same role, alternating from scene to scene and sometimes shot to shot, who with their combined presence roughly equal the beguiling qualities of Dietrich. And “beguiling” is truly the name of the game with this story. Both films tell of a woman who plays a man like a yo-yo, swinging between attraction and repulsion but always sinking the hooks deeper into him (pardon the mixed metaphors). It’s an absolutely appropriate summation both for the Dietrich-Sternberg partnership (which began with The Blue Angel, another story of a woman destroying a man) and Buñuel’s career-long fascination with sexual possessiveness.
In both cases, the man clearly has no one to blame but himself. There is an obvious mismatch between the man and the woman, both in terms of age (less markedly in the Sternberg film) and class, with the exorbitantly wealthy man eagerly throwing money around to please the hard-up working girl and barely batting an eye when he learns that advantage is being taken. This detail solidifies the possessive nature of the relationship. He thinks he can buy her, and she’ll happily let him go on thinking that. It’s nothing so simple as a con game, either. Both Sternberg and Buñuel are clearly aware of the erotic charge these women get from essentially edging their paramours until the bated thrill is so strong that no act of neglect or betrayal will make the man give up. The spell that Dietrich, in particular, casts becomes a running joke for Sternberg. Both films borrow the novel’s flashback structure, but only The Devil Is a Woman faithfully adapts the idea of an older man warning a younger one about a woman. The Lionel Atwill character begs the Cesar Romero character to stay away from Dietrich, which the virile young man vows to do before of course becoming twitterpated the moment he lays eyes on her. Still, he resists her charms until, with the final twist of the knife, he learns that the Atwill character still wants her back even after sharing his long, involved tale. At that point, they become rivals despite each man’s better judgment.
In place of the comic melodramatics of Sternberg’s version, Buñuel has a more wistful view of his main character’s autumnal folly. The flashbacks have a dash of matter-of-fact weirdness, getting kicked off when the Fernando Rey character douses the woman (played at that moment by Carole Bouquet) with a bucket of water before taking his seat on a train next to another woman, her daughter, a psychologist, and a judge — all of whom are naturally curious what the spectacle was all about. We see Buñuel’s insistence on connecting humanity to baser nature with symbolic appearances during the flashbacks by a mousetrap and a dead fly floating around a dry martini. These, too, are quieter than Sternberg’s carnivalesque riot of streamers, balloons and masks. Buñuel clearly takes the man’s point of view more readily than Sternberg does. The use of two actresses in the same role expresses Rey’s fascination with and failure to adequately understand the woman. The technique is never as simple as “one actress seduces him, and in the next scene the other actress resists and plays coy.” Bouquet and Ángela Molina have very different qualities, and they certainly look nothing alike. There’s something of the unapproachable, ideal Woman-with-a-capital-W about the character. Again, Marlene Dietrich is such a legendary presence that she can achieve that kind of effect without any help. Differences in censorship between 1935 and 1977 are an obvious distinction between the films, as well. For the purposes of seduction, the complicated little dance of Dietrich putting on a shawl serves as an elaborate substitute for Bouquet or Molina simply removing her top.
Political unrest is an undercurrent in each film, with The Devil Is a Woman again more faithfully transcribing the world of fin de siècle Spain, while That Obscure Object of Desire updates the story to a world of modern terrorism. The Cesar Romero character in Sternberg’s film is a revolutionary attempting to evade the oafish police force led by Edward Everett Horton, who is more concerned with revelers making a mess than anything. Although the bombings in Buñuel’s film are obviously more violent and threatening, the attitude is not all that different. Rey’s character isn’t terribly traumatized when he gets mugged at knifepoint or he becomes a victim of carjacking. An early conversation expresses a thought that would surely make Sternberg smile. It’s proposed that modern terrorists are in it for the excitement more than any coherent ideology, and that one day soon their exploits will adorn the sports pages. Even so, the backdrop is more than appropriate for a story about a psyche in disarray. Similarly, the presence of a Spanish revolutionary hounded by authorities in a 1935 film has an unmistakable “what is the world coming to” resonance.
It’s all fun and games until the idea of a possessive relationship reaches its logical conclusion. The climactic outburst, in which the man slaps the woman around, is the point of no return, a perverse and problematic (to say the least) spur for arousal. Censorship again distinguishes the two films: we see and feel Molina’s bloodied nose, while Sternberg cuts to an exterior shot of window shutters in a rainstorm when Atwill strikes Dietrich (though the sound effects are quite harsh enough). It’s a complicated moment. The jealous reaction is all-too-understandable. Dietrich taking Atwill’s cigarette and putting it in the mouth of a young bullfighter she just met is about as flagrant as sexual symbolism gets. Rey watching Molina with another man from behind an iron gate is nearly as potent. On the other hand, there’s nothing weaker or more pathetic (not to mention evil) than a man taking out his frustrations on a woman’s face. Both Atwill and Rey hold the mistaken conviction that, with all that they’ve given these women, they now own them. The possessor becomes the possessed.