The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere
Cinematography by Edmond Richard
Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Adolfo Celi and Michel Piccoli
I wasn’t thrilled with The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, Buñuel’s first 1970s film in his final “trilogy” of experimental movies, but I’m nothing if not an obsessive completionist, and my awareness of Buñuel as a cornerstone of surrealist filmmaking prompted me to give him a second chance. I found my efforts somewhat rewarded, as The Phantom of Liberty featured a much more consistent lack of consistency, which I enjoyed more than its predecessor. Co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere claims that Buñuel was free to do “whatever he wanted” after the commercial and critical success of Discreet Charm, and sought to take advantage of that freedom with a full awareness of its dangers. That alone would seem to adhere to my own personal tastes, which tend toward films in which the flaws are as unmitigated as the strengths. Moreover, having readjusted my expectations and acclimated myself to Buñuel’s style, I was more willing to surrender to the superficiality of his characters – especially since none of them is on screen for more than 15 minutes. Despite online summaries that claim otherwise, I didn’t get the sense that Buñuel was really mocking the Bourgeoisie here in the way he did in his earlier film. The absurdity here felt universal, sublime, and almost zen-like in its use of paradox.
Carriere also claims that his and Buñuel’s aim was to transition from one story to a less-interesting story in order to subvert expectation and show moments of “possible stories”. I didn’t feel the stories became less interesting over time (which is probably a good thing, in my opinion), but perhaps he meant that the stories were all terminated in the middle of some kind of climax, so that the new narrative appeared to thwart the viewer’s satisfaction. This might have been the case, although I wasn’t invested enough in the narratives to notice.
In any case, the action here plays like a philosophically-inclined TV sitcom. An unsavory man in a playground gives a little girl some photographs, whose content is hidden from us, but which we assume are sexual. The reactions of the girl’s parents are those of shock and disgust, and when the child is away they look at the photos themselves and reminisce about their sexual encounter in Milan. We then see that they are actually looking at a postcard photo of Milan. They flip through the other images, all of famous landmarks in European cities, and remark how dirty they are – one building in particular is so vulgar that the mother tears it to shreds. In another scenario, a dignified family sits down around a dinner table in which the seats are replaced by toilets. Any talk of food is considered vulgar, and they retire demurely to a special room to eat in private (one woman knocks on this “eating room” while it is occupied and apologizes awkwardly when she hears the occupant’s reply). Buñuel and Carriere’s favorite scenario is that in which a young girl goes missing even though she is in school with everyone else, plainly visible to those who search for her. Her parents, the police, and the schoolteachers all look at her and interact with her in order to gain some clue as to where she is. One officer even asks if he can take her along on the search so as to remind him what she looks like. The metaphor is made apparent by the fact that the child frequently protests “I’m here”, which the parents ignore: she is missing, ironically, because those around her refuse to take her seriously.
The sequences are all linked surprisingly well by overlapping characters, although none of the actors return from prior scenarios once the transition has been made. The filmmaking here is actually more transparent than Discreet Charm, with more zoom shots instead of tracking shots (all slow and subtle), and more conventional continuity editing. One exception I noted was a small violation of the 180 degree rule during a scene in a hotel hallway. The camera seems to cross the line around an actor so that our spatial orientation within the hallway becomes confused, heightened by the fact that the doors resemble one another in either direction. Another notable use of technique was the rapidly spinning camera shot during the final scene at the zoo, in which the sounds of gunfire and protestors chanting “down with liberty!” is juxtaposed with a dizzying blur of trees and sky and some stock footage of ostriches. The ostrich shots themselves feature prominent jump cuts, as though flaunting the sudden rawness of the footage. It’s a strangely appropriate ending to the film, leading us out of the string of narratives by breaking the fourth wall and placing us back in our theater seats.