The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Monica Vitti, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort
Runtime: 103 minutes
My Rating: ★★★★★
In Short: Offbeat, offensive and original; a deliciously dark satire from Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was one of the most controversial and daring of all filmmakers. His films made fun of the middle and upper class, mocking their discreet charm and sickening politeness. He cheekily made fun of religion and how humans allowed it to rule their lives. And he did whatever he could to piss off the people in charge of him. He liked all the things that they hated, and it shows in his films. His love of dreams and nightmares as an escape from the dull stupor of reality shows in many of his films, and The Phantom of Liberty, his penultimate film, is structured of this dreamlike menace in a way unlike any of his other work.
In a manner of experimental structure that Richard Linklater would borrow for his debut feature Slacker, Buñuel follows one character, then when he has had enough of them, has them interact with another character and then follow that character, and so on, until the film’s end. There is virtually no plot; simply a series of bizarre, often surrealistic and always daringly provocative scenes that those who share Buñuel’s fantastically dark sense of humour will find hilarious. I know I certainly did. If you thought Buñuel was daring when he implied Jesus as a rapist in L’Age D’Or, filmed a donkey being stung to death by wasps in Land Without Bread, implied incest between two siblings in Viridiana, refused to allow a group of people to leave a room despite the door being wide open in The Exterminating Angel, or had a group of rich folks at a dinner party be inexplicably shot to death by military soldiers in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, you haven’t seen anything yet.
In this film, Buñuel takes his subtle extremism to even more startling heights. A strange man in a park gives children pictures and tells them not to show their parents. We assume they are pornography. They are actually pictures of famous buildings around the world. The parents are disgusted. Meanwhile, monks help a young woman pray for her sick father, and all of them are invited into the room of a married couple for a bit of harmless S&M. A man who shoots various people in the street from a building is convicted of his crimes, but approached by various excited fans for his autograph. And so on.
There are no limits to how far Buñuel is willing to go. His attempts to make fun of the middle class are more outrageous than ever. In the film’s most famous scene, a group of married couples go to a dinner party where the concepts of going to the toilet and eating a meal have swapped meanings. They all gather around and sit on toilet seats, defecating. Then one by one, they sneak off to the bathroom to eat dinner. In a much simpler but equally as provocative sequence, a married bourgeois couple are so ignorant that they don’t seem to realize their daughter is walking around with them and report her as missing.
I shouldn’t describe so many of these sequences, as it takes the fun out of seeing them for yourself. Buñuel has never made a film as funny and effective as this. Many say that it is his best, and it is certainly among my favourites. What makes it so great is Buñuel. No one else could have directed this film in the way Buñuel did it. He is one of the best directors of all time, and his work in the 60s and 70s is examplary of such a master. No filmmaker, not even Jean-Luc Godard, was as daring at this time as the Mexican master. Only Buñuel could get a screenplay for one of his films (Viridiana) approved by the government for production, and then strictly banned after it was released. No director indulged so deeply in his own secret fetishes and self-gratifying kinks and made it as entertaining for the audience as it was for him. And very few directors were able to be so hilarious, so fantastic, and so lovable even while making absolutely no sense whatsoever. Luis Buñuel is and will forever remain a legend of the cinema, and The Phantom of Liberty is his biggest, most impressive sensory assault.