The Phantom of Liberty August 16, 2016
I like that Luis Buñuel doesn’t much care about what his audience thinks. I like that he’s unhesitant to satirize anything that strikes him as mannered and taboo, that most of his movies are both deadly serious and fiendishly funny. I like that he leaves logic at the door, preferring to assault our senses with ticklish surrealism that invites us into a weird world where anything goes. I like that he seems to be decidedly aware that his work might strike some as being pretentious and oppositional, and that it doesn’t stop him from doing whatever the hell he wants to.
In a career beginning in 1929 with iconic short Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel’s penultimate masterpiece, 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty, is a great argument for his genius. Buñuel was seventy-four years old at the time of the film’s release, an age wherein the majority of filmmakers are either becoming increasingly inclined to rely on autopilot or are retired and patting themselves on the back in their luxurious beach homes after decades of hard work. But The Phantom of Liberty, dauntingly provocative and unashamedly challenging, feels like the work of a young man, weird, witty, and wonderful. It’s among his greatest achievements.
Customary to many of his best pictures, The Phantom of Liberty doesn’t utilize an established storyline to give basis to its ideas. Like a dream or a lucid hallucination, it moves dreamily from one scenario to the next, some characters connected to one another and some a part of Buñuel’s cerebral commotion, to be left behind without a trace. Tying the freewheelingness together, though, is a common theme of being shackled to cultural normality in a society that’s supposedly best distinguished by its freedom.
The satire isn’t exacted at anyone directly — Buñuel is most drawn to the way various cultures, regardless of the year and regardless of the region, live in fear of crossing the paths of controversial unmentionables, of anything that interrupts a sense of comfort and banal normality. We’re in a prison of civilization, Buñuel cinematically grieves, and we’re all victims to a strange world of contradiction.
Cynical, maybe, but his presentation is facetious and fanciful; it’s a true blue comedy of manners. Moving from character to character, addressing assorted taboos and anxieties with the brevity of a vignette, The Phantom of Liberty is unafraid to cuttingly jeer at the hypocrisies of religious zealots, the trepidations toward sexuality, the baseless fearfulness of falling out of power once you have it, and the tendency the public has to sensationalize widely covered crime to a point that mimics idolization. It also ponders, with comedic success, too, what it would be like if using the restroom, for instance, were a public activity and dining were a private action. If artistic photography were considered scandalous, not pornography and pedophilia.
Taken separately and The Phantom of Liberty’s individual storylines might be seen as inconceivable, perhaps grotesque. But when threaded together by Buñuel’s razor sharp penning, the lampooning is rigorous and cohesive. His jabs, particularly the bathroom gag, are so repetitiously dotty that they catch us off guard in the way they so discerningly bite. What could easily be categorized as phantasmagorical oftentimes proves to be so suitable for the topic at hand that the pointedness could draw blood.
And a buzz arises from our being in response to a film as didactic as The Phantom of Liberty; to be challenged, but not condescendingly so, is a sensation more cinematically elusive than the plainspoken thrill. Buñuel would make just one other movie — the equally prodigious That Obscure Object of Desire, released in 1977 — but the film doesn’t show signs of slowing down; it’s a piece of new beginnings, of evolving artistic interests. It’s a masterstroke. A