It is the fact, process and results of obsession and desire which are under dissection [in Cet Obscur Objet du Désir]. As the title indicates, the object of that desire, while not unimportant, remains obscure, for it may be that within this context the very frustration of desire is desire's true objective. If that is indeed the case, Cet Obscur Objet du Désir indicates that Buñuel has begun to despair; his characters here no longer wrestle against the forces of repression and frustration but collaborate and embrace them….
Far from creating a fascinatingly romantic image of desire á la Dietrich [as Josef von Sternberg did in The Devil Is a Woman, based on the same novel], Buñuel destroys that very idea…. [Two actresses who play Conchita] are used interchangeably, arbitrarily, with one often beginning a scene and, after a brief cut away, the other finishing it. The point is not so much that the lover sees the beloved in a multiplicity of guises, as that, once he has 'decided' to desire her, he probably doesn't see her at all. The almost surrealistic melting of one woman into another serves to unnerve us and to make the object of desire even more obscure. In being thus distanced from the object, we are forced to find the lover and his love more than a little ludicrous….
While [Mathieu's fellow travelers] condemn Conchita's emotional and sexual terrorism (she is, after all, an 'object' removed from the first-class carriage), they ignore their own and that of religion, economics, psychology, law, marriage, motherhood, virginity—all of which are subjected to Buñuel's satirical scrutiny. Their reaction to the acts of literal terrorism is a smug complacency and deluded 'understanding', or, that failing, a cry for violent repression….
It is never possible, nor even desirable, to build too exact an intellectual scheme based on individual 'symbols' in Buñuel's films. Obviously, he works less with strictly formulated theories and structures than with almost instinctive images growing naturally from the narrative. Still, it is difficult not to connect recurring patterns of objects between one film and another. That burlap sack which Mathieu carries (similar to one slung over the shoulder of a passing workman glimpsed momentarily midway through the film) reminds one immediately of the burden pulled by the man in Un Chien Andalou. A heavy load of social and moral values, perhaps. That one load is comprised of nightgowns and the other of piano, pumpkins, priests and donkeys is beside the point; that exploding sack serves the same function, save that one hinders and the other destroys completely….
[Cet Obscur Objet du Désir] is Buñuel's most effective and disturbing film in years. It is more subtle than either Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie or Le Fantôme de la Liberté. Its humour is less obvious, less accessible, but far more corrosive; its structure more sophisticated in so far as it both creates a hallucinatory world within what seems at first to be a typical melodramatic structure and then itself comments on that world in almost equally hallucinatory terms. Cet Obscur Objet du Désir is also Buñuel's most moving film in years. For all his pitiless flaying of every sort of human behaviour, he reveals unsuspected wellsprings of sympathy for the ridiculous characters trapped within the shell of decayed social and moral values. Although the insights of his wit, directed against 'them', are as fresh as ever, this time we are left with a whole world whose evident object of desire when less obscurely seen may well be self-destruction. That final flaming image must, after all, include all of 'us' as well. (p. 8)
David L. Overbey, "'Cet Obscur Objet du desir'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 7-8.