Movie Review – The Phantom of Liberty

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Directed by Luis Buñuel

The comedy anthology film is a rare beast but experienced some popularity in the 1960s and 70s. Monty Python’s contributions are notable, sometimes using an overarching plot to structure the sketches or just featuring scenes that exist independently. Most recently, we have The French Dispatch as a prime example. I think these movies come out of the filmmakers having ideas that weren’t big enough for a feature film but not wanting to make short films as those aren’t as marketable. People want to see a movie, so you take all these little ideas, maybe create some links to move from one bit to the next, and release them that way. This is precisely what Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty is.

To understand The Phantom of Liberty, we must understand where it comes from in the Buñuel film canon. This was his penultimate picture, made when he was 74 and thinking seriously about retirement. He would come to see this as his favorite of his films and would state that its overall theme was that chance controls everything in our lives. As much as we plan and are sure of the following steps, the universe’s randomness will step in and trip us up. The film is then made up of scribblings of Buñuel’s from throughout his life and the dreams he recorded. 

But there is a more overt political theme at work in the movie. The title is derived from the following quote in The Communist Manifesto and shown on screen at the film’s start: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.” This was not written as a negative at the time but a reflection of how the authorities in the continent reacted to the widespread growth of Communism. They went on a tirade against any political thought that rejected the main pillars of European civilization, like the church, the wealthy, and the state. Buñuel had been a more passionate communist in his youth but by this point in his life had become despondent & jaded from the siege communism adopted by the Soviet Union following World War II. His interest in the idea of an absence of free will in the universe had taken root, and Buñuel would speak about spending lots of time contemplating how we lack freedom in any definition if our lives are dictated by chance. Our actions would become pointless, chaos sending us on random paths.

So what exactly happens in The Phantom of Liberty? A hell of a lot. A fancy dinner party involves guests dropping their drawers, sitting on toilets, and pissing & shitting as they converse at the table. Occasionally, one person will excuse themselves, go to the dining room (a small space where you can have some privacy) and eat food. A young girl is approached by a lecherous man in the park who gives her an envelope of photographs. She returns home and tells her parents, who are shocked. He has given her pictures of French architecture. There’s the wild sequence at a country inn where a woman, a group of monks, and a couple into S&M all bed down for the night and have a series of increasingly comic interactions. 

Buñuel and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière were making the film the same way David Lynch does. They were following subconscious thoughts and images without inherent meaning. This journey into the surreal is full of surprises, characters making choices and behaving in ways that we might not expect but somehow seems to work in the context of this film universe. Because we’re exploring the subconscious, the taboo becomes prevalent regarding scatological acts, pedophilia, incest, voyeurism, self-flagellation in sex, foot fetishism, and even necrophilia. This is not meant to be actually happening; we’re floating through a mind with all its impulses, curiosities, and random twists & turns.

Another overarching theme is questioning why certain things are taboo and others are not. The dinner party scene from Buñuel came out of his curiosity as to why the Western world is so repulsed about using the bathroom close to others, but we have no hang-ups about eating with others. He’d become aware that during World War I, soldiers in the trenches were first disgusted but then came to defecate in front of each other without any revulsion. So, this leads to questions about different norms and what makes us refer to some acts as “natural” and others as not. The film ends on a rather exciting and sudden note, the camera staring into the eyes of an emu as sounds play in the background. In this image, Buñuel has said it was an attempt to make a connection by looking directly into the eyes of an animal. The sounds are those of student protestors being beaten by thug cops. It represents a yearning to find something innate in ourselves as animals on this planet who have complicated our lives to justify killing each other. The Phantom of Liberty walks a constant tightrope of comedy & drama, a masterpiece made by a filmmaker working at a level of such brilliant craft.

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