Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Phantom of Liberty (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1974)

"Madrid was filled with the stench of -pardon my language - food. It was indecent. "

- Le professeur des gendarmes, "The Phantom of Liberty"

A professor and his wife arrive for a gathering at a friends house. We think they are preparing to have a meal. Instead they all drop trow, have a seat on the toilets mounted around the table in place of chairs, and begin to converse and tell stories as they go about their natural business. A few pick up magazines to browse through. A little girl tells her mother she's hungry and the mother scolds her for her bad manners. The professor stands, pulls up his pants and excuses himself from the table, discreetly asking the maid for the location of the dining room. There he finds a chicken dinner, a bottle of wine and complete privacy. This is just one possible example of the horrifying potential of evolving morals and customs, according to the professor in probably the most famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, the surrealistic masterwork by legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"The idea came to us to make a film which would...go from one story to another story, but leaving a story when apparently it becomes interesting". So speaks screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere on an exclusive interview for the Criterion DVD release of Phantom. Indeed this is a concept that consistently flows throughout the movie. We are introduced to a character, follow them for a bit until they are ostensibly drawn into one crazy situation after another, only to abandon that character for another in a flash, right as the action seems to be approaching a crescendo. If it sounds familiar to you, Richard Linklater also employed a similar style in his 1991 cult hit Slacker, a film I admire but have found to wear a little thinner upon each of my three viewings. It is a premise that in lesser hands could have easily felt manipulative and unnecessary, however for the most part The Phantom of Liberty feels throughout the duration of its 105 minute running time both fresh and inspired, in the style of its execution as well as the ideas that pour out of it. This is a movie of an astonishing creative vision that none other than Bunuel himself could have made.

And now I must be completely honest. I was underwhelmed the first time I watched this movie. I saw it one tired night during the peak of a week long Bunuel marathon I recently and proudly endured, and my initial reaction was that while it had moments of genius (which is to be expected from anything with Bunuel's name on it), much of it felt dull and ponderous. A tired journey with no seeming destination or point. As I noted, I was exhausted during this viewing and ended up probably mentally checking out by the midway point. However I was anxious to give it another chance, as parts of it had lodged themselves in my brain and stayed with me. Particularly my absolute favorite sequence in the film, involving Bunuel regular Julien Bertheau (the priest with a green thumb in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), playing a man who may or may not be a police commissioner, who on the day of the fourth anniversary of his beloved sister's death receives a telephone call in a lonesome bar from someone claiming to be her. The voice on the phone knows intimate details that no one else could possibly know, and Bertheau is compelled to follow directions leading him to his family's vault in the local cemetery. It is a masterfully directed and hauntingly comic sequence, even if the payoff is purposefully enigmatic.

During my second viewing I found myself quickly enveloped by the hypnotic, deliberate pacing of the film. Parts that had initially bored me now seemed rich with subtle detail and surrealist touches, such as the sequence where a little girl apparently becomes missing at her school, prompting her parents to race there in a panic. In fact the girl is in school and in her desk in plain sight like normal, but that doesn't stop her parents and teacher from conducting a full-on police driven investigation, with the adults occasionally shushing the young girl, who pleads with them, not unreasonably, that she is in fact right there and perfectly fine. This situation is typically Bunuelian, and ripe with comedic moments that had been completely lost on me during my initial, hopeless viewing.

Nevertheless there were moments that still did not work for me this second time around. An extended scene, set at an inn which occupies the most time any location is given during the film, between a nephew and his aunt apparently engaged in an incestual relationship is overlong and comes across as a bit gratuitous, bringing the pace of the film to a quick halt. The part where a sniper kills numerous people from the top of a building, is arrested and sentenced to death, only to be met by photographers and people asking for his autograph on his way out of the courtroom still feels overt and way too easy for Bunuel. However these did not deter my enjoyment of the film, rather this time they simply felt like a few minor, off color brushstrokes on an amazing canvas painting.

So after all of this, what does the film mean? Along with the title, the first scene provides a clue: set in 1808, Spanish soldiers arrive to liberate the city of Toledo. When a handful of the inhabitants refuse liberation, they are lined up and executed, shouting "Down with freedom!" before the triggers are pulled. Bunuel seems to be asking us if alongside everything wonderful coming with liberty, do we likewise lose something? It is a difficult question, one that doesn't have an easy or even tangible answer, but an interesting one to ponder nonetheless as we fall under the spell of Bunuel's meticulously woven work of art.


Ed Howard said...

Great writeup of a typically great Bunuel film. I always loved his trio of late-period surrealist sketch comedy works: this one, Discreet Charm and The Milky Way. These films are all driven by an anecdotal structure, propelling themselves from one gag to the next, and this film in particular functions like a Monty Python show more than anything else.

I do have to disagree with one line here: "This is just one possible example of the horrifying potential of evolving morals and customs." I don't think there's any horror in that scene, and Bunuel certainly isn't scared of "evolving morals." Instead, I've always read that scene as demonstrating the essentially arbitrariness of our morals and customs. Why do we consider one end of the digestive process normal and acceptable as public behavior, but find the other end of the digestive process disgusting and vile and only to be done in complete privacy, away from other people? Both acts are natural and necessary to live; the customs we build up around these things are, by contrast, to some extent artificial and arbitrary. I think Bunuel's having fun pointing this out to us, tweaking our morality by suggesting that there's no real, intrinsic reason for the things we believe. That's Bunuel: always the opponent of "common sense."

Drew said...

Thanks alot Ed! What I wrote was:

"This is just one possible example of the horrifying potential of evolving morals and customs, according to the professor..."

The professor who is relating the anecdote in the film notes how the evolution would be "horrifying". I obviously agree with your read about Bunuel's feelings and his intent with the scene along with the inherent arbitrariness involved in the situation.

The Discreet Charm... is one of my very favorites and The Milky Way is also excellent, your comparison to Monty Python, specifically in regard to Phantom is right on the money. Definitely three standouts in the massively impressive body of work Bunuel left us with.