The Phantom of Liberty

Year: 1974
Production Co: Greenwich Film Productions
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel/Jean-Claude Carrière
Cast: Adriana Asti, Michael Lonsdale, Jean Rochefort

This is a classic example of how a little bit of context about the film helps before you watch it rather than coming to it cold. It's not a story, it's one big, long allegory, and approaching it as if it's a plain old movie narrative will have you scratching your head and/or switching it off.

There's an old story – either a book or a movie (I couldn't even search online for it because I remember so few of the details) that depicts a yellow convertible which goes from one owner to the other. I think it was from the 1930s. Actually it might have been about a pen – the yellow car might be from some other unrelated memory. Anyway, you as the audience stay with the car, witnessing the lives and domestic dramas of the people who own or use it for as long as it's in their presence or possession, moving on to the next drama as the car does.

My point is that the structure of Luis Bunuel's polemic against polite society's conventions/stream of consciousness fever dream about chance and coincidence isn't a new idea in fiction. If anything, the only difference is that he dispenses with the car (or whatever other talisman the audience follows), the movie simply shifting to someone else's story when they cross paths with the former protagonist in some random way. The same device was used in an Italian romantic drama about 10 years ago – I couldn't remember enough of the details to search for that one either.

To describe the plot crisscrossing the characters' lives in detail would take as much time as it takes to watch the movie, because the point of The Phantom of Liberty is that the action and dialogue on screen is all artifice. It's purposely banal and everyday, Bunuel's real point underneath the surface.

Most of the goings on are normal – inasmuch as a pair of BDSM freaks asking a young woman and a clique of Franciscan monks back to their hotel room to watch them spank and flog each other can be termed 'normal' – but the real star of the show is the concept of our attention. Just when a story develops, Bunuel moves the spotlight again. Deep breath...

We go from two kids approached in a playground seemingly by a pervert who gives them photos, to their parents who find them, disgusted, before the father goes to the dentist the next day, where the dentist's assistant asks if she can have some time off to visit her sick father, driving through a storm that night to a remote hotel on her way to his hometown, meeting the monks to drink and play poker and visit with the BDSM pair, to a skittish young man in the same hotel trying to seduce his older aunt, to the man who asks the dental assistant for a ride into town the next day and turns out to be a lecturer at a police academy where one of the cops who leaves the class stops a speeding driver, the driver having rushed to see his doctor only to be told he has cancer, then hearing that his daughter has disappeared from school, one of the cops he makes the report to later having his shoes shined, the guy sitting next to him at the shoe shine booth going off to randomly kill people from a high tower with a hunting rifle, to being convicted and sentenced to death, to the father with cancer who has the missing daughter having his daughter returned, to the senior detective who gives him the good news having a memory of being at home with his beloved sister (with her playing the piano in the nude), to returning to his office to find someone else has taken his place, to something about a riot and circus animals, and we finally fade to black on footage of an ostrich's head.

Yes, that's all the normal stuff (trust me). Apparently each scene came to Bunuel and his cowriter by writing down their dreams while they put the script together, but the real meat is to be found in the absurdities in some of those vignettes, the abnormal stuff that exists in strange parallel universes.

The most vivid example is the dinner party scene, a flashback related by the police academy instructor. It shows he and some other well-dressed guests arriving and greeting each other at a posh house, only to hike up skirts and drop their pants and sit around the table on toilets while they discuss the issues of the day, the weather, etc. Bunuel doesn't go as far as laying fart sounds over the soundscape, but the intent is clear.

One of the guests discreetly asks the maid where the dining room is, whereupon he goes to select and eat a meal. The little girl at the table tells her mother she's hungry and is quickly hushed so she doesn't embarrass the genteel gathering. In this parallel universe, using the toilet is a convivial shared activity and eating is something we do tactfully and in strict privacy.

When the parents of the two pre-teen girls in the first scene find the photos the creepy man has given them, we see their horror and disgust, only imagining the depraved scenes they depict before a shift in the point of view means we can see the photos too, and they're all of artfully shot tourist attractions and famous landmarks.

The whole time we're with the parents who are frantic with worry over their missing daughter, the little girl is actually right alongside them, patiently shushed as they try to speak to the police when she tries to tell them she's right there. There's the killer sentenced to death who then leaves court a celebrity, the man reminded of his dead sister who gets a phone call from her asking him to meet her, finding the phone she called from in the mausoleum where she's buried, and lots more very weird but very straight-faced folly.

It's obvious as you watch it that it's completely allegorical and subtextual. What it's allegorical about is less clear. The title might be saying something about the illusion that you, as the audience, have to watch a story unfold the way the director wants because he/she can forcibly take your gaze away by literally not filming that story thread anymore.

But you also wonder if there was some political dimension – there was plenty of civil discord in Bunuel's home bases of France, Spain and Mexico during his active years (if you're that interested, his autobiography apparently lists the search for truth, the unshakable nature of social ritual, coincidence and personal morality as the themes, and they're certainly in there.)

So while it's not a visual treat and takes a bit of work to get through – especially after you start to invest in characters and they're gone in the blink of an eye – it's a pretty thrilling example of the medium of cinema doing something rather than just showing you something.

It was also driving me mad where I'd seen the guy who was into flagellation with his girlfriend in the hotel. It was Michael Lonsdale, who played the villain Drax in Moonraker.

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