Judge Mike Pinsky once dressed up as the Phantom of Liberty for Halloween. He got a rock.
"And now, I'm going to show you some very pretty pictures. But you mustn't show them to anyone."—Lecherous man in park (Philippe Brigaud)
Luis Buñuel was an artist who, to paraphrase one of the characters meandering through this film, was "sick of symmetry." Watch him mock bourgeois notions of freedom and success in this mild satire from the twilight of his career.
Facts of the Case
Liberty has evaporated in the city under siege. Napoleon's army's crowd the streets of Toledo. Prisoners are lined up for execution. One man shouts "Down with liberty!" Liberty made by the barrel of a gun. Soldiers munch communion wafers. One officer, certain of his dominion, orders the corpse of a long-dead queen brought to his bed. She is still beautiful.
Two women loiter in a park, discussing this story, as it happened quite a long time ago. Children play. A man watches two little girls go down a slide. He shows them "pretty pictures." Later, the parents of one of the girls will look at these pictures. Aroused and offended, they will declare the pictures indecent.
The pictures are all postcards of famous landmarks. Architecture as erotica. The Arc de Triomphe is offensive. Sacre Coeur is the most obscene of all.
Le Fantôme de la Liberté begins with a disclaimer that the film about to follow is a work of fiction. I wonder if this is meant to be a joke. Nobody would mistake The Phantom of Liberty for a documentary. Still reeling from the success of Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière decided to push their luck by returning to the sort of fragmentary anti-narratives that made Buñuel notorious in his early, more conspicuously surrealistic phase.
Thus, there is probably no point trying to explain the plot of this film. There isn't one. The Phantom of Liberty is sketch comedy by an anarchist. Bourgeois morality is the target. Sketches overlap, as if there might be some tenuous connection among all these people. For example, after the events narrated above, the father (Jean-Claude Brialy, whose character is suggestively named Foucauld, so close to Foucault) has a strange dream, during which a postman hands him a letter. The next day, he shows the letter to his disbelieving doctor.
Then, we follow the doctor's secretary as she drives off and gets stranded overnight in a hotel. Monks barge into her room to force her to pray to an icon of St. Joseph. Later, they all play poker, puffing cigarettes and betting religious medals.
The sketch plays out like a perverse parody of the Upton Inn sequence from Tom Jones, including an incestuous encounter between a young man and his elderly aunt (whose naked body double is deliberately much younger to reflect the nephew's skewed desire) and some spanking during a friendly cocktail party. Mockery is the order of the day in Luis Buñuel's world.
Buñuel seems most interested in finding ways to skew authority, whether it is the police, the church, or simply the rich. We see a class at the police academy that behaves like a bunch of high school kids. The last two students (who stayed late to read a Marxist newspaper) are forced to listen to their teacher (François Maistre) tell a story about his visit to a friend's home, where the dinner guests sat on toilets and discussed bodily waste. The dining room was the secret place where each person went to fulfill his pressing need to eat in private.
So what does it all mean? One way to look at this film is how Buñuel uses architecture as a strange attractor, a gathering point for random collections of people and objects which intersect to generate meaning. A park, an inn, anyone's bedroom. We know these places better than we understand the characters. The locations become focal points for social order. The dinner table is where social negotiations are made. The bathroom is where subjects go to deal with the unspeakable.
But in Buñuel's dreamworld, the unspeakable is made public, and the dirty object becomes present. A sniper (Pierre Lary) shoots random people in the street from a 30th-floor window. The court objectifies him, renders him a "criminal," by finding him guilty and sentencing him to death. Now officially taxonomized by the law, he is immediately set at liberty.
Buñuel jabs repeatedly at the notion of visibility in society. The commissioner of police (Julien Bertheau) becomes a criminal for talking to his dead sister (Adriana Asti) and thus loses his status, finding himself replaced by a doppelganger (Michel Piccoli) who bears his name. A little girl (Valerie Blanco) stands next to her parents while they discuss how she has vanished and possibly been kidnapped. She even answers their questions, helps fill out her own missing persons report, and yet they talk as if she has disappeared. How can she be present and absent? Only if, as a child, she is an object and not a subject. Her objective existence does not mark a subjectivity. She is told to be quiet; her identity leaves no mark.
The recurring motif here is the line between subjects and objects. Objects speak up, assert their liberty. But the spirit, the subject, is a phantom, easily erased or ignored or washed away in the morning light as if specters from a dream. The little girl tries to speak while they all insist she is absent. The commissioner's sister rises from the dead to reveal the secrets of life to her brother. The sniper acts out of turn, is judged guilty, and must be freed, because only the criminal individual is outside the imprisoned masses.
This is the sort of political critique that probably would have had audiences in France rioting if it were still the 1920s. But by 1974, France had already seen enough barricades and Buñuel movies to become only mildly amused. And that is really all The Phantom of Liberty is. Mildly amusing. Buñuel never pushes too hard, shooting the film in earth tones (nicely captured in Criterion's crisp anamorphic transfer) to keep it looking real even if its images come right out of our dreams. The deadpan quality makes the film funny enough, in that all the characters seem to treat the strange events in their lives as entirely natural.
As I noted before, there is a sketch comedy feel to the film, although any comedy troupe would have played this stuff more broadly. Buñuel however has given Phantom a smoothness that may actually work against it. The film flows so easily, seems so perfectly executed, that its satirical attacks lack passion. The gags almost seem muted by the technical proficiency of a practiced master of cinema. Compare this to the rough-edged satire of another 1974 comedy, Blazing Saddles, which never skates smoothly but is still brutally funny in its critique of authority and social roles (the objectification of race particularly). In Phantom, Luis Buñuel shows his political bona fides and his cinematic prowess, but he just does not seem angry enough to make the humor work. For an artist who (at least according to the essay by Gary Indiana that Criterion includes in a lengthy booklet) prized the scathing satires of the Marquis de Sade, The Phantom of Liberty is fairly easy-going for 1974.
Oddly, this might make The Phantom of Liberty a good film to introduce newcomers to Buñuel's work. A viewer can easily be sucked into the momentum of the film, as Buñuel deftly shifts from scene to scene, idea to idea. His imagery is as vivid as ever, and the individual scenarios will give viewers plenty to puzzle over. Criterion does not offer a commentary track as any guide, although the aforementioned booklet (which includes an interview with Buñuel) might afford some clues. Only a brief video introduction from Jean-Claude Carrière and a trailer round out the extras.
If there is such a thing as a filmmaker's own mastery of the form working against him, then that might be the strongest criticism I can make of The Phantom of Liberty. When Buñuel notes in the interview in the booklet that "it's my delight in surprise, shock, confusion that stays with me," I can only wonder how shocking he really thought this film was. Maybe it is me. I cannot help but wonder if the increasingly surreal world we live in (celebrity killers set free, fundamentalists accusing ordinary objects of being pornographic, an actual Asian restaurant chain that opened last year with toilets for seats) has simply made Buñuel too, well, prescient to be funny.
Maybe Buñuel's dreams have all come true. Maybe The Phantom of Liberty is a documentary after all, one about the world of Buñuel's future, the world we inhabit. If that is the case, then James Joyce was right: our history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.
Guilty! Therefore, Luis Buñuel is free to go. Case dismissed.
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