Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Discreet Charm of the
Bourgeoisie is probably more a more satisfying entertainment, but if one wants to
understand the core of
Luis Buñuel's take on surrealist playfulness, the picture to see is The Phantom of
Liberty. Criterion's tidy package includes an interview and several text extras that
clarify the rationale behind the unique wickedness that sparks Buñuel's best work.
An invading French officer seeks to resurrect a dead queen in Toledo, 1806.
Schoolchildren are passed filthy postcards on modern-day French playground. A man's visit to
the doctor is interrupted to follow a nurse's trip to the country, where she meets some odd
monks and an S&M couple at an inn. A social gathering reverses the roles of the bathroom and the
dining table. A young girl disappears and her distraught parents seek the help of the police. A
mad sniper is apprehended by the police and put on trial. A prefect of Police receives a phone call
from his dead sister, and goes to her tomb to see if she's really there.
After thirty years of melodramas and classical adaptations with undertones of surrealism, Buñuel
returns to the roots of the movement with The Phantom of Liberty, a blatantly nonsensical
non-narrative that resurrects an early surreal aim, the destruction of narrative forms. Young
avant-garde enthusiasts in the twenties and thirties wrote that their idea of creative anarchy was
to theater-hop between cinemas. They would arrive in the middle of a story in one movie. As soon as some
interesting development came along, they'd leave and rush to the next theater to plop down in the
middle of some other movie, and so on. In what now sounds like a primitive form of channel-surfing,
they constructed their own illogical narratives that purposely made hash of artistic intentions
and moralising messages. The essential content of the films was liberated by being pulled out of
their original contexts.
The Phantom of Liberty follows this idea explicitly. Just as one character or story grabs
our attention, Buñuel's camera opts to follow another character into a completely different
narrative thread. Interesting characters are introduced and then dropped as arbitrarily as might
a minor bit player.
Naturally, the tale teases with satirical jabs at social conventions and other mundane realities
that the surrealists would have liked to see exploded. Some are simply wicked observations, such as
the fairly uncomfortable sequence that asks why civilized humans eat together as a social gathering,
while bodily eliminations are hidden away in private. Never mind that there's plenty of logic to
back up the convention; the work of surrealists is to yank the rug out from under complacent givens.
Nothing thrilled the surrealists more than the idea
of the fantastic erupting into everyday life, an obsession that politicos frequently link to
ideological extremism. Some of the play-fragments of the 'story' deal explicitly with famous
surrealist themes. Surrealists loved the idea of blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, between
responsible action and 'liberated' instinct. They were mostly talkers and writers that proposed
all kinds of shocking ideas but thankfully didn't carry them out. It's understandably difficult
to grasp the intended purity of intention behind their talk about crazy violent acts, or doing
things like showing pornographic films to children expecting a cartoon matinee. The Marquis de Sade
merely wrote about obscene sex and tortures, but society equates dangerous thinking with dangerous
According to the filmmakers, writing a surreal tale is not as easy as it might seem. If the idea makes
sense, has a demonstrable purpose or needs to be premeditated, Buñuel
claimed that it wasn't any good from the surrealist point of view. A mad killer like Whitman on
his Texas tower doesn't qualify, even though The Phantom of Liberty shows a similar shooter
following a similar impulse. Buñuel's mass murderer isn't crazy and shows no reaction to being
served a death sentence for his crime. The kicker comes when he's unaccountably released. His judges
light his cigarette and autograph seekers run to him. It's as if the definition of 'death sentence'
had been changed to mean 'forced to live in human society' - just as Hell turns out to be a discotheque
in Buñuel's Simon of the Desert. 1
By Buñuel's definition, Orson Welles' trick of (presumably) purposely seeing if he could
start a panic with his War of the Worlds radio show doesn't qualify either. Whether or not he
intended to vault to Hollywood on the basis of a stunt, it was a calculated effort for
personal fame and gain. Like the wholly mysterious reason that Buñuel's sniper is let off
the hook, the surreal act needs to be gratuitously irrational.
In the film's most maddeningly amusing sequence two parents, teachers and the police frantically
search for a lost child, who is among them all the time and is simply being ignored. When the
policeman asks for the child's description so the cops will know what they're looking for, the
girl's mother has her stand up so the policeman can see for himself!
In another 'basic' skit, a man gives a schoolgirl what we think are pornographic postcards.
Her parents look at with horror and then seem to be turned on by one of them. I won't give away the
punch line except to say that it's essentially identical to the premise of the first
episode of the 1963 The Addams Family TV show, the one where Morticia and Gomez are scandalized to
find out what filth is being taught their children at school - Grimm's fairy tales. Surrealism
is where you find it.
Elsewhere Buñuel gets in side digs about insects, grave-robbing (which might lead to
necrophilia), indifference to sexual provocation, incest between a young man and his aged aunt,
and the expected jabs at organized religion. A gallery of actors famous and unknown fill out the
large cast - Jean-Claude Brialy, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Bernard Verley
and 'friendly guest star' Monica Vitti.
Elaborately filmed and presented, The Phantom of Liberty presents every scene from a
serious, level-headed standpoint, even its historical opening in which a statue comes to life to
deliver a blow to an amorous French officer. Amusingly, a scene in which a man is given a traffic
ticket has no satirical or illogical aspect whatsoever - Buñuel and his writer Jean-Claude
Carrière obviously think the situation is sufficiently bizarre without further elaboration.
The only organizing principle is the title, said to be a quote from the Communist Manifesto.
A famous painting of a massacre of rebels is repeated once or twice as a motif. The purest expression
of the filmmakers' artistic intent comes when Jean-Claude Brialy shoves aside a clock on a desk-top
to make room for an inappropriate decoration, a huge preserved tarantula. "I hate symmetry," the
man says. I think Buñuel's approach is correct. Even after many years, the events in his
provocative movies are impossible to forget.
Criterion's fine DVD of The Phantom of Liberty is an excellent enhanced transfer to join
their equally pristine editions of Discreet Charm and
That Obscure Object of Desire.
Jean-Claude Carrière is interviewed on camera with his viewpoint on his collaboration with
Luis Buñuel, and the insert booklet reprints a fascinating interview with the director
addressing the finer points of surrealist interpretation for the cinema. Gary Indiana offers an
essay as well. The disc was produced by Jason Altman and Heather Shaw.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Phantom of Liberty rates:
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Introduction by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere;
Trailer; essay by culture critic Gary Indiana
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2005
1. Of course, the celebrity
of real criminals given heavy media coverage seems just as surreal ... with atrocious crimes leading to
book deals, etc. As Ed Neumeier said, "Kill a kid, go to Beverly Hills ... it's the Law!"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson