Luis Bunuel: The Phantom of Liberty – A review

I had the sublime pleasure of watching The Phantom of Liberty on the weekend, Luis Bunuel’s second last film and the one he felt best summed up all he was trying to say as a film maker.

Surrealism is an older concept now. Freudians (or Lacanians rather)  have moved past the idea of the latent ‘beast within’ that is held at bay by convention. In fact Freud fought with the surrealists at the time over differences in their approach to the unconscious. Louis Bunuel takes one of the primary concepts of surrealism – that is the mythology of Liberty – and questions many different aspects of it in this wonderful film. One of the tenants of Surrealism and an exciting climax in the cinematic life of a great filmmaker.

Freedom – liberty – is the gatekeeper to all we think we can and cannot do. Liberty, is unbridled freedom. it is less self governance and more of an anarchic drive of unrestrained desire. For some, Liberty is defined as close to human rights, independence and democracy. For others it is the turgid water under the oily surface of the controlled social order.  This is why rebels fight for it, officials plot against it, governments shelter and/or suppress it, and those who’ve never known it want desperately to taste its trappings. That it can cause such joy and be so jaundiced, creating both strife and sublimity makes liberty a most surreal philosophical conceit. After all, too much can be bad, and too little can occasionally be necessary, or even good.

This is the perfect subject matter for a film maker like Bunuel. He loves to take every aspect of an idea, throw it up to the four winds and let the pieces fall wherever they may. In a Bunuel world everything is upside down, back to front and cheap as chips. Just because Buñuel sees the planet through glasses that convolute his vision, doesn’t mean he has nothing to say as an artist or a thinker. Indeed, in his 1974 masterpiece on the subject of sovereignty, he makes it very clear that nothing and no one is truly free. Everything and everyone is interconnected. That is the truth about so-called self-determination.

In The Phantom of Liberty there are virtually no social institutions left untouched by Bunuel’s  ironic and surreal criticisms. The police, school teacher and parents fail to notice a school girl who has allegedly gone missing but is literally in front of them the whole time (I happen to particularly love that scene). A pervert gives Photos to two young girls, one of whom gives them to her parents, who immediately fire the nanny and then proceed to get both aroused and appalled going through the photographs. The photographs are of major tourist sites around Paris. Some religious monks playing poker with a young woman are invited in for a drink while a couple engage in sadomasochistic play in front of them.  the judicial system sets a mass murderer free. A teacher speaks about polygamy to a class of two students. Finally, the bourgeoisie is portrayed as fetishistic, incestuous and ultimately so far removed from reality that they suffer bizarre hallucinations. In Buñuel’s surrealist world, society is composed of irrational, oppressing and decadent institutions.

In his essay, The Phantom of Liberty, Marco Lanzagorta has this to say about the film:

“The Phantom of Liberty is an extremely complex film. It has more than 60 speaking parts and features characters from two historical periods (the Napoleonic Wars to the present day). It deals with a variety of transgressive themes such as fetishism, necrophilia, incest, mass murder, sadomasochism, and pedophilia. No less important, this film relies on a variety of storytelling devices and narrative forms, such as narrative painting, the gothic tale, the incest story, the letter, the dream, the flashback, the omniscient narrator, and the horizontal wipe.”

The most interesting feature of The Phantom of Liberty is its unconventional narrative. It comprises twelve mini stories, each linked by a small event of some kind. The film opens with a scene in the Napoleonic wars. Then we find a nanny is actually reading about the scene. The Nanny takes the children home where the father has strange dreams and feels the need to see a doctor. The doctors consultation is interrupted by his nurse who says she needs to leave immediately as her father is ill. On her way to see her father, she stops off at an inn. The next morning when she leaves, she offers a lift to a lecturer who relates the story of a dinner party he recently attended and the story-line continues like this through to the end. Each segue is like a baton pass highlighting the fact that everything is connected by chance, coincidence being the primary drive of the narrative. Because chance drives the narrative, we watch the film burdened by the concept of a random world that controls without purpose.

Each individual story has its own complexities, depth and challenge to the social mores. Overall the main theme is the one of the rule of chance, but within each story is more.  The Phantom of Liberty may have taken its title from Karl Marx’s Communist manifesto, though the film is not at all about communism, rather the notion that freedom is a ghostly entire, always elusive and untouchable and yet strangely at our fingertips. No scene better reveals the sever limitations of the human grasp of freedom than the dinner party scene. Guests arrive for a party, and are asked to sit around the table on toilets rather than chairs. everyone sits on the toilet, cigarettes and reading material are passed around as the conversation flows easy as each person is using the toilet. At one point a man asks to be excused, and asks the maid where the dining room is in hushed tones. he is led to a small room where he locks himself in, sits alone at a small table and eats. Both eating and defecating are normal bodily functions, but in society one is deemed socially acceptable and the other is not. In turning this upside down, Bunuel exposes the strangeness in the social contracts. Absurdism, so close to surrealism (though definitely not the same) is used her to remarkable effect. (A short video of this scene is in my ‘video of the day’ page – check it out)

The Characters in the Phantom of Liberty seem to be completely free and it is this freedom that leads to the chaos of the irrational society. These institutions, in turn, obliterate the apparent freedom of the characters. Paradoxically, the characters’ unrestrained freedom ends up enslaving them.  Consequently, freedom is presented as a concept as absurd and surrealistic as the images presented in the film. The Phantom of Liberty is a very complex film, rich in detail and symbolism. The surrealist images range from the comical to the profane, from the rational to the absurd, and from the ambiguous to the poetic.