In 1972, when he was in his 80s, director Luis Buñuel released what is very likely his masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The film is a marvel for a lot of reasons, but one of its hallmarks is the constant digressions of its plot; it moves unexpectedly from dream sequence to reality in ever-deepening convolutions, as though Buñuel placed equal weight on our waking and irrational lives. In his next film, 1974's The Phantom of Liberty, he dispensed with plot, as it is traditionally understood, altogether. In this penultimate outing, Buñuel focuses on the role of chance in life, on the free-associative substance of dreams, and on the arbitrariness of social conventions, and he extends that focus to the film's structure itself.
The continuity of The Phantom of Liberty isn't entirely random; the plot moves from one character's set of circumstances to another's, taking the film with it and only rarely returning to previous narrative strands. (Richard Linklater's Slacker is an example of another film - perhaps the only other film - with a vaguely comparable structure.) The Phantom of Liberty begins with the execution of Spanish partisans by Napoleonic troops in Toledo in 1808, an incident memorialized in Goya's famous painting "Third of May." The film, in fact, opens with this image - and it recurs more dependably than any character does - the intended irony being that the partisans were fighting against the greater freedoms that the Napoleonic Code afforded, and thus against liberty. Among the French troops is a captain whom we follow into a cathedral; there he makes sexual advances on the statue of a certain Dona Elvira, whose body rests beneath the cathedral floor, until he is assaulted by the statue of her late husband, which kneels next to hers. To this point the film has been narrated, and here the scene shifts to a nanny in contemporary times who is reading the captain's tale out loud in a park. As she reads, the young girls in her charge are approached by a shifty man who offers to show the girls some photos, warning that no grown-ups are to see them. We then meet the father of one of the girls ("I'm sick of symmetry," he announces while handling a display box containing a giant spider); he and his wife are outraged when shown the photos, and later the man's sleep is haunted by a mailman, who delivers a letter to his bed, and what I took to be an ostrich sauntering casually through the room. The following day this man's doctor explains that he's not interested in his patients' dreams, but the man insists that he wasn't dreaming and offers the letter he received as proof.
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