The Phantom of Liberty Movie Review
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.
And so it goes with The Phantom of Liberty, until, by film's end, we've visited a police academy where the cops behave like school kids (one shoots out a light with his handgun while the others bray and cheer), a manhunt for a missing child continues for weeks although the child remains in plain sight at her mother's side throughout, and a man condemned to death for a series of random killings gives autographs as he walks from the courtroom, defeated but free, as though the business of justice were concluded when the sentence is read. Weaving in and out of these meticulously pointless proceedings is a private symbolism that occasionally references the condition of freedom; the film concludes, for instance, with a massacre of demonstrators (they shout, "Down with liberty!" just as the Spanish partisans do at the beginning) that takes place at a zoo, amid caged animals. That same ostrich shows up again, too. Buñuel spoke regularly in his films of man's innate urges and the ways in which society frustrates them with capricious mores, but in The Phantom of Liberty a larger meaning seems to loom tantalizingly near without ever taking shape. It's both as illusory as a dream about a mailman and as real as the letter you find in your hand.
I'm personally disinclined to demand explanations of Surrealists, but in The Phantom of Liberty they seem to be tentatively offered and then suddenly withdrawn. As with all Buñuel, the experience of watching the film is a delight: it's evocative, playful yet acerbic, and witheringly funny. And interviews with the director and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière reveal that the material was developed in part by an exchange of the two men's dreams. Ultimately, though, The Phantom of Liberty frustrates; it's balanced too precariously between free association and narrative sleight of hand.
A word of explanation about those obscene photos the girls were given: when the audience finally glimpses them we find that they're not pornography but rather postcard views of the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. ("That's going too far!" the mother exclaims.) Buñuel is contending that the decision to summon moral outrage at the sight of nudity is as pointless as getting worked up over photos of monuments, that it might just as easily have turned out the other way around. This inversion of societal values is the most common theme in The Phantom of Liberty, and Buñuel states it with real audacity; in this inscrutable film, it's the one thing you can bank on. Does it also have the effect of making you look harder for meaning elsewhere? Maybe so.
The Phantom of Liberty is newly available from the Criterion Collection in an edition that includes an introduction from Carrière, the theatrical trailer, and printed essays and interviews.
Aka Le Fantôme de la liberté, The Specter of Freedom.