The Phantom of Liberty

"Good"

The Phantom of Liberty Review


In 1972, when he was in his 80s, director Luis Buñuel released what is very likely his masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The film is a marvel for a lot of reasons, but one of its hallmarks is the constant digressions of its plot; it moves unexpectedly from dream sequence to reality in ever-deepening convolutions, as though Buñuel placed equal weight on our waking and irrational lives. In his next film, 1974's The Phantom of Liberty, he dispensed with plot, as it is traditionally understood, altogether. In this penultimate outing, Buñuel focuses on the role of chance in life, on the free-associative substance of dreams, and on the arbitrariness of social conventions, and he extends that focus to the film's structure itself.

The continuity of The Phantom of Liberty isn't entirely random; the plot moves from one character's set of circumstances to another's, taking the film with it and only rarely returning to previous narrative strands. (Richard Linklater's Slacker is an example of another film - perhaps the only other film - with a vaguely comparable structure.) The Phantom of Liberty begins with the execution of Spanish partisans by Napoleonic troops in Toledo in 1808, an incident memorialized in Goya's famous painting "Third of May." The film, in fact, opens with this image - and it recurs more dependably than any character does - the intended irony being that the partisans were fighting against the greater freedoms that the Napoleonic Code afforded, and thus against liberty. Among the French troops is a captain whom we follow into a cathedral; there he makes sexual advances on the statue of a certain Dona Elvira, whose body rests beneath the cathedral floor, until he is assaulted by the statue of her late husband, which kneels next to hers. To this point the film has been narrated, and here the scene shifts to a nanny in contemporary times who is reading the captain's tale out loud in a park. As she reads, the young girls in her charge are approached by a shifty man who offers to show the girls some photos, warning that no grown-ups are to see them. We then meet the father of one of the girls ("I'm sick of symmetry," he announces while handling a display box containing a giant spider); he and his wife are outraged when shown the photos, and later the man's sleep is haunted by a mailman, who delivers a letter to his bed, and what I took to be an ostrich sauntering casually through the room. The following day this man's doctor explains that he's not interested in his patients' dreams, but the man insists that he wasn't dreaming and offers the letter he received as proof.

And so it goes with The Phantom of Liberty, until, by film's end, we've visited a police academy where the cops behave like school kids (one shoots out a light with his handgun while the others bray and cheer), a manhunt for a missing child continues for weeks although the child remains in plain sight at her mother's side throughout, and a man condemned to death for a series of random killings gives autographs as he walks from the courtroom, defeated but free, as though the business of justice were concluded when the sentence is read. Weaving in and out of these meticulously pointless proceedings is a private symbolism that occasionally references the condition of freedom; the film concludes, for instance, with a massacre of demonstrators (they shout, "Down with liberty!" just as the Spanish partisans do at the beginning) that takes place at a zoo, amid caged animals. That same ostrich shows up again, too. Buñuel spoke regularly in his films of man's innate urges and the ways in which society frustrates them with capricious mores, but in The Phantom of Liberty a larger meaning seems to loom tantalizingly near without ever taking shape. It's both as illusory as a dream about a mailman and as real as the letter you find in your hand.

I'm personally disinclined to demand explanations of Surrealists, but in The Phantom of Liberty they seem to be tentatively offered and then suddenly withdrawn. As with all Buñuel, the experience of watching the film is a delight: it's evocative, playful yet acerbic, and witheringly funny. And interviews with the director and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière reveal that the material was developed in part by an exchange of the two men's dreams. Ultimately, though, The Phantom of Liberty frustrates; it's balanced too precariously between free association and narrative sleight of hand.

A word of explanation about those obscene photos the girls were given: when the audience finally glimpses them we find that they're not pornography but rather postcard views of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. ("That's going too far!" the mother exclaims.) Buñuel is contending that the decision to summon moral outrage at the sight of nudity is as pointless as getting worked up over photos of monuments, that it might just as easily have turned out the other way around. This inversion of societal values is the most common theme in The Phantom of Liberty, and Buñuel states it with real audacity; in this inscrutable film, it's the one thing you can bank on. Does it also have the effect of making you look harder for meaning elsewhere? Maybe so.

The Phantom of Liberty is newly available from the Criterion Collection in an edition that includes an introduction from Carrière, the theatrical trailer, and printed essays and interviews.

Aka Le Fantôme de la liberté, The Specter of Freedom.



The Phantom of Liberty

Facts and Figures

Run time: 104 mins

In Theaters: Sunday 27th October 1974

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 15 Rotten: 2

IMDB: 8.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Luis Buñuel

Producer:

Starring: Adriana Asti as la dame en noir, la soeur du premier préfet, as le premier préfet de police, as l'infirmière, Maxence Mailfort as le lieutenant des dragons, as M. Foucault, as Mme Foucault, Hélène Perdrière as la tante, Pierre-François Pistorio as le neuveu, as l'aubergiste, as le médécin, as M. Legendre, Pascale Audret as Mme Legendre, Claude Piéplu as le commissaire, as le gendarme, François Maistre as le professeur, Anne-Marie Deschott as Edith Rosenblum

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Murder on the Orient Express Movie Review

Murder on the Orient Express Movie Review

The latest adaptation of Agatha Christie's 83-year-old classic whodunit, this lavish, star-studded film is old-style...

Paddington 2 Movie Review

Paddington 2 Movie Review

The first Paddington movie in 2014 is already such a beloved classic that it's hard...

A Bad Moms Christmas Movie Review

A Bad Moms Christmas Movie Review

Everyone's back from last year's undemanding adult comedy, plus some starry new cast members, for...

Brawl in Cell Block 99 Movie Review

Brawl in Cell Block 99 Movie Review

Filmmaker S. Craig Zahler brought a blast of offbeat creativity to the Western genre two...

The Death of Stalin Movie Review

The Death of Stalin Movie Review

Fans of the film In the Loop and the TV series Veep will definitely not...

Call Me By Your Name Movie Review

Call Me By Your Name Movie Review

Set in northern Italy in the summer of 1983, this internationally flavoured drama is a...

Thor: Ragnarok Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok Movie Review

The most riotously enjoyable Marvel movie yet, this action epic benefits hugely from the decision...

Advertisement
Breathe Movie Review

Breathe Movie Review

While this biopic has the standard sumptuous production values of a British period drama, it's...

The Snowman Movie Review

The Snowman Movie Review

With a cast and crew packed with A-list talent, this film seems like it should...

The Party Movie Review

The Party Movie Review

Comedies don't get much darker than this pitch-black British movie, written and directed by Sally...

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Movie Review

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Movie Review

Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) is on his way to becoming the new Woody Allen, which...

6 Below Movie Review

6 Below Movie Review

Based on an astonishing true survival story, this film is subtitled "Miracle on the Mountain",...

Mother Movie Review

Mother Movie Review

Darren Aronofsky doesn't make fluffy movies, and has only had one genuine misfire (2014's Noah)....

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

It's been 35 years since Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic, which was set in 2019....

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.