It is redundant to describe a Luis Bunuel film as strange or eccentric – that’s what the term “a Luis Bunuel film” means. In fifty years of filmmaking, Bunuel produced a body of images and ideas that willfully embraced absurdity and contradiction (all with a healthy dose of perversity), while actively resisting conventional interpretation. In “Phantom of Liberty,” his penultimate film and the follow up to his Oscar-winning “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), Bunuel just went plumb crazy.
At least that’s what many critics believed at the time, as the general consensus was that the film was a disappointment. In many ways, “Phantom” is a quintessential Bunuel film, relying on the twin engines of sacrilege and fetishism to propel the narrative (such as it is.) Sacrilege: French troops ransack a church and chow down on holy wafers to help cure the munchies. Monks play poker with religious medals (“I’ll open with a virgin.”) Perversity: A young man spirits his much older aunt off to a hotel for a weekend tryst, a traveling businessman in the same hotel invites the poker-playing monks and another woman into his room to watch his secretary whip him, bare-ass naked, into an orgiastic frenzy (as everyone leaves in horror, the businessman cries, “At least let the monks stay!”)
We’ve seen these images repeated in various forms in many Bunuel films, but “Phantom of Liberty” elevates the insanity to a whole different level by fracturing the narrative into multiple short stories with constantly shifting protagonists. There is no main plot and no lead actor. Bunuel flirted with a similar strategy in previous films, but takes it to a new extreme here. Jean-Claude Carrière, long-time Bunuel collaborator and one of world cinema’s most prolific screenwriters, describes the film’s strategy as one which abandons each story just as it becomes interesting in order to follow another less interesting one. That’s only half accurate, as most of the stories are quite compelling and lead up to a brilliant conclusion.
It’s pointless to try to recount the events of the film. I’ll just try to give you a taste for what the movie is like. In one section, the parents of a young girl are called to school because their daughter is missing. As the teacher tries to explain what happened, the young girl in question tugs on her mother’s hand. Mom tells her to keep quiet; they’re busy looking for her. Later, the girl is taken to the police station where her parents report her missing. The policeman points to her and asks, “Is this the girl that’s missing?” and asks her what her name is so they can search for her. She is simultaneously present and missing: one officer wants to take her along to help search for her.
Bunuel films an impossible contradiction, and we catch at least a hint of his purpose here. Many critics have described the film as dream-like and, indeed, Carrière and Bunuel allegedly wrote the film by telling each other their dreams each. I think “dream-like” is an apt description of “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” in which a dinner which never quite materializes is repeated over and over, but I view “Phantom” in a very different light. Where “Discreet Charm” is based on the strange and circular logic of dreams, “Phantom” is consciously constructed in direct opposition to the logic of reality; call it anti-logic. A sniper who executes multiple victims on the street is arrested and put on trial. A stern-faced judge sentences him to death whereupon an officer unlocks his handcuffs and shakes his hand, setting him free. In another scene, guests sit around a dining table on toilets. They relieve themselves while chatting excitedly, but a man excuses himself and, with great embarrassment, asks the maid where the dining room is. It’s at the end of the hall, of course.
Each story is connected, however tenuously, to the previous one: a minor character from one story leaves the room and the camera follows her into the next story, leaving the old one behind. The plots of each mini-story do not, however, necessarily relate to one another. Bunuel consistently works against convention and reason, and thereby liberates the film to proceed from moment to moment delightfully unfettered by expectation. Nothing can be anticipated (OK, except for the kinky stuff – it’s Bunuel after all) and, as a result, virtually every event in the film comes as a refreshing surprise.
It’s tempting to extract a broader meaning from the film’s apparent randomness. One of the common themes running through Bunuel’s work is the notion that civilization is a thin veneer that can easily be stripped away to reveal the barbarism inherent in the human race. In “Exterminating Angel” (1962), my favorite Bunuel film, a group of wealthy, refined party-goers is trapped in a mansion and soon turn on each other after the food and water runs out. “Phantom” ends with a similar breakdown of society. Following the sniper’s rampage, the film ends with the police firing on a group of unseen protesters at a zoo, presumably slaughtering them all.
Even in this final scene, Bunuel taunts the audience by refusing to yield to even the most basic of filmic conventions. The camera holds on the police commissioners as they order the strike on the protesters. We hear gunfire off-screen, the camera holds a beat, then pans… and keeps right on panning in a dizzying blur. Bunuel never shows the protesters, as we would expect, but breaks off the pan with an abrupt cut to an ostrich (or maybe it’s an emu) which stares mutely as the shots continue to rings out.
So what does it all mean? To be honest, I’d rather not know. It would just spoil the fun.
Your appreciation of “Phantom of Liberty” will depend, in part, on your need to extract meaning from the entire affair. If you need a coherent story with a definitive conclusion and a clear message, you will probably feel as frustrated as many critics did in 1974 (of course, you’re not going to get that from many Bunuel films anyway.) If, instead, you allow yourself to simply experience the film from scene to scene, enjoying as absurdity piles upon absurdity, and surprise follows surprise, you just might enjoy it. I am hesitant to pass judgment after watching the film just once, but I guess that’s my job as a reviewer. I think it’s pretty damned brilliant, at least for now. “Phantom of Liberty” is one of Bunuel’s most pleasurable and rewarding films and is perhaps my favorite after “Exterminating Angel.” It is the sort of film that both requires and (I suspect) rewards multiple viewings, and I look forward to watching it again.
The DVD is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The high-definition digital transfer is up to Criterion’s usual standards. There are a few specks remaining from the source material, but the image quality is sharp and clear and the colors are rich and vibrant. A fine effort.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original optical track and the hisses and pops have been cleaned up. The music and dialogue are both well-mixed. Optional English subtitles support the audio.
Pretty flimsy by Criterion standards. The only real feature is a brief introduction (5 min.) by Carrière. The DVD also includes a theatrical trailer. The insert booklet contains an excellent essay by the always entertaining Gary Indiana as well as a lengthy interview with Bunuel.
The title of the film supposedly derives from the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A specter (phantom) stalks the land; the specter of Communism.” The film is thus interpreted not only as a typical Bunuel shot at bourgeois hypocrisy, but also a dig at organized Communism in the 1970s. Maybe. I’d rather think of the film in terms of its parts: incestuous hookups, a dominatrix secretary, poker-playing monks, a dining room with toilet seats for chairs and a very disinterested ostrich (or maybe it’s an emu). That sure sounds like the formula for a good movie to me.