It's the ghost that haunts all of our actions, the literal specter that colors everything we think we can and cannot do. Some call it freedom, others call it autonomy, but it is really known as liberty. Technically, liberty is not really synonymous with those other quasi-defining ideals. Liberty is UNBRIDLED freedom. It is less self-governance and more an anarchic, completely unrestrained spirit of individual desire. For many, liberty is tantamount to democracy, independence and human rights, while to others, it is the bane of a careful, 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 perfect fodder for master filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Up is down, black is white and good is evil in a Buñuel world. Colors cry as words wander aimlessly in the visions of this volatile director. He is one of the few creative minds that want to grasp all aspects of an idea, to toss aside the common so that the novel, unknown aspects can come to the fore. Only he could make liberty seem both scandalous and sacred, realistic and ridiculous at the same exact moment in movie time. His is an aesthetic that grabs ideas by their essence, shakes out the sensible bits, and places the peculiarities on surrealism-inspired display for everyone to see. His is an artistry of the absurd, a desire to describe that is as avant-garde as it is authentic. 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. That is The Phantom of Liberty.
This is a basic breakdown of the events that occur in The Phantom of Liberty: While it won't really ruin your enjoyment of the movie to read this point by point breakdown, several of the small surprises that Buñuel has in store will be described here:
A general during the Napoleonic wars decides to desecrate a corpse to prove a political point. A nanny caring for a child reads about his awful exploits. The little girl the nanny is supposed to be watching is approached by a pervert. The sexual scoundrel gives the girl scandalous postcards, which she gives to her parents. On the way to the doctor's office for the results of his tests, the irate father fires the nanny. While in the office, the head nurse asks her employer for a leave of absence. She is traveling to visit a sick relative in the country. While on the way, she stops to rest at an inn. There she meets some monks. They end up playing cards together.
A young boy is also staying at the inn. He is having a tryst with his matronly aunt. They all have a run in with some sadistic swingers. The nurse leaves the next morning. She gives a man a lift to the next town. He is an instructor at the police academy. He gives pointers to the officers on criminal behavior. He also admonishes one patrolman for having dirty shoes. At the shoeshine stand, the policeman sits next to a stranger. The man ends up being a sniper, who holes up in a high-rise building, picking off people in the streets. He is tried and found guilty. He is condemned to death, and released to bask in his celebrity. In the meantime, a child has turned up missing from her school. With the missing girl in tow, the parents make an official missing persons complaint. The commissioner himself wants to handle the case, but he also must attend a dinner party where the guests use the toilet in the dining room, while eating in a small room off the hallway.
The lost little girl, who was always visible and acknowledged as such, is located. The parents congratulate the commissioner. He goes off to meet a friend in a bar. He runs into a woman who looks just like his dead sister. He gets a phone call from said dead family member. He traces the call to the family crypt. He is arrested for desecrating the gravesite. The other officers do not believe he is the commissioner. He meets with the man they consider the commissioner. The two men are friendly and cordial. The two gather some patrolmen and head out to the site of a riot. They order crowd control to suppress the uprising, all to prove a political point.
One of the most mesmerizing cases of dramatis interruptus ever put on film, Luis Buñuel's 1974 masterwork The Phantom of Liberty will instantly loose many a modern moviegoer. Individuals used to having plot force fed to them, people who like tightly wrapped up packages of character and continuity, and the average mindset that thinks sequences and scenes that play out in moments, not minutes, are just too damn long, will take one look at this lackadaisical farce and dismiss it as an exercise in mise-en-masturbation. And indeed, that may very well be Buñuel's basic intention. This is interactive cinema at its most basic, a movie that challenges you to fill in your own entertainment blanks, to shore up the narrative divides and decipher the symbols and social criticism being bandied about. That Buñuel makes it complicated and chaotic is part of the fun. So is the revelation, at least in a couple of sequences, that this all may just be a big fat raspberry in the face of the conventional elements of film, filmmaking and film going.
Casting aside all political and interpersonal agendas for the moment, you really do have to understand Buñuel's basic principles of presentation, or you'll hate every single moment of this weird wonderland of a film. As a director, Buñuel was concerned with convoluting convention, of making a mess of what we understand as the reason and rationale for cinema while simultaneously resetting the broadest aspects of the benchmark. The narrative links in The Phantom of Liberty are incidental at best. One characters concern knocks into an ancillary individual, and in typical Buñuel style, that seemingly unimportant person picks up the story and takes us somewhere else. That the people populating his scenarios are so narrowly interrelated is obviously part of what the filmmaker wants to explore – the notion that life is filled with such little, seemingly insignificant incidents. But Buñuel also wants us to look outside our own insular domain of relativity, to see people living their own lives - existences that match our own in importance, scope and complexity.
The Phantom of Liberty is a movie of subliminal messages, a testament to the throwaway gag – either comic, horrific or dramatic. Several times in the story, the characters will announce a problem (financial limitation, physical illness) only to have said subject NEVER come up again. A name will be tossed out – and never repeated. A place will be visited, or a visual used, only to disappear before being deciphered. They become, for Buñuel, like early entertainment buzzwords, setting us up for scenarios that will always fail to arrive, to put emotions in place that are barely acknowledged or used. What you get out of the film will be totally dependent on how willing you are to open up and let convention cease to matter. Buñuel isn't really interested in how things play out on screen. He is far more fascinated by how they reassemble and resonate it your own head. His imagery is there to invoke a response, more iconic than symbolic. Sure, we can see certain schemes and themes throughout this chaotic cornucopia. But Buñuel is always ahead of the game, guessing our plot proclivities and character considerations and instantly tossing them onto the scrap heap right when we think they will pay off.
A perfect example comes about halfway through the film. A government official attends a dinner party at a friend's house. Before he prepares to sit down, he drops his pants. That's because this gathering is occurring at a dinette consisting of a table and eight toilets. That's right, the guests are not sharing a meal, but are instead casually conversing while having a shit and a piss. After relieving themselves, they rush to a little room off the hall, where they can lock the door, sit in silence and enjoy a meal in complete privacy. At first, Buñuel's message is more or less obvious. By making the social act of dining similar to sitting on the John, both literally and figuratively, he is stripping away the personal performance aspect of any and all social interaction.
He dismisses the desire of people for isolation, even in the most sensitive of acts by arguing that, if they will break bread and drink wine together, why should the reciprocal physical reaction be any more secretive and secluded? That our politician scuttles off the privy to partake of some food merely confirms the conceit. In reality, we want to relish out food, pig out in parameters that many would find obnoxious or offensive. So we relegate our instinctual pleasure to a formality, while turning the even baser biology of producing waste into an equally ceremonial ridiculous ritual.
There are other examples throughout the film of how contradictory we – and Buñuel - view the world. A young man wants to have sex with his older, more mature aunt. We see her as an elderly woman with the semblance of her original beauty still painted across her aged face. But when the youth strips back the bedcovers to expose her nude body, Buñuel substitutes an obvious physical double. While we would view the aunt's ancient physique with some manner of pause, the eyes of lust see her as sexy and deliciously desirable. The same scenario is applicable to the sniper. He is a dashing rogue, sunglasses reflecting the world around him as he struts along the street. He cuts a swath of sophistication and style even as he is killing random people. He's like an advertisement for men's aftershave come to life. When tried, he is convicted, but his death sentence is supposedly served in being released. Maybe they should have called it his "eventual" death sentence, or execution by publicity and infamy.
The Phantom of Liberty is filled with such synchronized incongruities. It offers missing children who are actually in the same room as the parents and police. It showcases debauched monks who cringe when the sexuality they are constantly hinting at actually shows up at their poker party, leather and whip in hand. Postcards given to little girls by park-preying perverts end up containing nothing more lewd than landscapes, and corpses make phone calls from beyond the grave, the better to warn their family members of possible civil subterfuge.
Taking its initial vignette – one of Napoleon's generals wanting to prove his manhood by having sex with the dead wife of a dissident foe – and adding it to the finale, where our police officials order an assault on Communist rioters, Buñuel makes his beliefs fairly clear: liberty is to be preserved and prioritized, not argued over or callously controlled. As an ex-patriot Spaniard still feeling the sting of Franco's horrid influence on his homeland, the director paints every government official as two-faced. Cops are carefree kids one moment, corrupt co-conspirators the next. Commissioners vow to uphold the law to the general public, while violating rules and regulations to forward their own agenda.
But Buñuel also wants to take on his other favorite foes – the church and the churlish bourgeoisie – and The Phantom of Liberty lets them have it, over and over again. The couple who find the pervert's postcards in their child's pocket act outraged, and also incredibly turned on, by the beautiful scenery and settings they depict. The family fretting over its lost daughter is too dense, and concerned with self and social ramifications, to see that their kid is right there, in front of their eyes. Priests and monks are portrayed as providing compassion with one hand while reaching around to cop a feel with the other. Indeed, in Buñuel's world, everything is corrupt, or capable of being corrupted. Children are sanctified, yet still easy prey for pedophiles, while women are viewed as both obvious while retaining that often obscure objective of desire. Life is a series of surreal setpieces in the realm of Buñuel, events that appear to make little or no logical sense. Of course, that could describe aspects of actual reality as well.
While this all may sound incredibly mannered and mysterious, Buñuel is actually a very human, very dramatically adept filmmaker. Even with all the oddball touches and flights of frightening fancy, we still find ourselves getting involved in these conflicting and incomplete stories. The narrative drive that allows us to skip from one unfinished story to another also entertains us in ways both elliptical and direct. We want to know what happens next, even when we learn that we will probably never know. Had this complicated plot been placed in the hands of someone like Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, we'd have had another hour of movie in which to connect the dots, link the families, and payoff all the seemingly pointless plot preparations. But Buñuel is not about to take such an easy, elephantine step. Instead, he'd rather YOU create the conclusion. He wants his movie to inspire and enthrall, not spell everything out in long languid scenes soaked in exposition.
This is why the filmmaker and his films, are such love/hate hot buttons. There are indeed many who will mistake Buñuel's aesthetic as more irritating than insightful. They will view his narrative variations and tendency to take off on tangents as being something antithetical, not in keeping with common cinematic practice. They will wonder over his motivations, malign his gratuitous gimmickry and only sheepishly acknowledge that there may be a method to his obvious, overstated madness. But this would be discharging Buñuel for the very reasons he made movies. He relished all rejected ideas, wallowed in approaches controversial and incorrect. He challenged the filmic art the way painters placed cubism above impressionism, or abstraction over realism.
And his movies don't meander, they do what other great masterworks do. They evoke emotion and invoke consideration. They inspire meditations and create internal dissertations. They simply exist, functioning free of individual expectation while simultaneously conceding that they need an audience to be authenticated and appreciated. One of the reasons why The Phantom of Liberty is so challenging is that it doesn't defy the rules so much as redefine them. The filmmaker merely hopes you'll play along, since fun is inherent in the concept of such participation. And he does speak to a modern, less motivated crowd. You can see Buñuel in lots of contemporary moviemakers: in the similar skewing of narrative and character ala Lynch and Solondz; in the far out visual language of a Burton or Gilliam; even in the obvious flaunting of convention championed by Tarantino and Anderson. Yet no one can match his own unparalleled eccentricity, his exuberant desire to dumbfound and flummox. Buñuel was a rebel at heart, and his movies are his random riot acts. And none are more mischievous, misleading, or mesmerizing than The Phantom of Liberty.
Visually, The Phantom of Liberty looks fabulous. Criterion has once again found a wonderful, near pristine print upon which to base the transfer of this title. They then give the film its own special cinematic polish. The 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful, filled with brilliantly managed contrasts and a great deal of visual splendor. Buñuel loved images, realizing that an object or a setting captured expertly would resonate louder than any line of dialogue. As an act of preservation and presentation, Criterion cannot be praised enough. But it also gets equal honors for helping a true artist retain his visionary complexity.
Thanks to a new English translation, with clearly legible subtitles, The Dolby Digital Mono track is professional and presentable. All conversations are clear and the dialogue easily discernable. It can be a bit thin at times, and loud noises (like gunshots or machinery) can come across as discordant and distorted. Still, for a foreign film made over 30 years ago, the aural attributes are fairly good.
About the only underwhelming aspect of this entire release is the added content offered. With nothing more than an introduction by The Phantom of Liberty's screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, a trailer for the film and a nice 32 page booklet, there is not a great deal of ancillary insight into Buñuel or his film. Sure, inside the pamphlet we get excerpts from an interview with the director where he discusses The Phantom of Liberty, but he is elusive and aloof in his answers, dodging direct analysis most of the time. He doesn't really want to block up the vacancies so much as explain why the empty spaces are there in the first place. What this title could really use is a scholarly commentary, a kind of alternate narrative annotation that walks us through the many references and inside jokes Buñuel is relying on in his madcap movie. Without said substance, many will find the supplements supplied by Criterion wanting, if not an outright waste.
Like fine vintage port, or a semi-soft cheese fermented and aged, Luis Buñuel is an authentic acquired taste. He will not be for everybody, nor should he be. Every director is not a covered dish at a potluck dinner. Some are delicacies to be savored, or upon the opposite pallet, indulgent drivel that should be sent back to the chef without compliments or further consideration. But bravery breeds experience, and experimentation can open up even the most narrow of perceptions. While there may be better examples of his exasperating, effortless muse, it is hard to deny the genius inside The Phantom of Liberty.
Just like the philosophical and ethical ideal itself, Buñuel's surrealism is not really what people think it is. It is not LSD inspired trips down psychotropic landscapes filled with talking fish and melting watches. It is not the mind made visual or the creative crafted into the cerebral. Buñuel once said that surrealism is necessary to deconstruct life in order to find its better, inner truth. The same applies to the concept of freedom. Before we can fully grasp it, we have to learn it, and then unlearn it. We have to own it and then need it. If we don't welcome or devalue it, its ghost will always haunt us. It will confuse and consume us. That is the power of The Phantom of Liberty. That is the power of Luis Buñuel.
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