LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Le Fantôme de la Liberté

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…

COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.

Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.

And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!

As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.

PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An uproarious summary of Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic concerns… a crazy, subversively funny film about convention-bound characters who have a hard time dealing with sexuality and freedom.”–Michael Scheinfeld, TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “viqman.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

6 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)”

  1. You’re quite right – Michel Lonsdale’s in this one too, though it has to be said that in Ronin he isn’t obliged to drop his pants and be whipped in front of very surprised monks! Though I’d already answered my own question just after sending this in by remembering that The Devil Rides Out features Charles Gray and Christopher Lee (both of whom keep their pants on and are at no point whipped). Any other examples? Especially if they involve gratuitous bondage scenes. I’ll bet there’s at least one by Jésus Franco…

  2. I’ve always thought they should try to get Connery to come back as a Bond villain once. Maybe a bit too hkey now, but it would have worked just fine with Brosnan as Bond.

  3. Enough already!!! I shouldn’t have stuck on that PPS and turned this into an off-topic game of Seven Degrees of Bacon! Incidentally, this site does have a forum for that sort of thing, but it’s tucked away in an obscure corner and last time I looked it was dead, so maybe this is as good a place as any to play movie games. Feel free to nominate further Double Bond Baddie films, with extra points if they involve Surrealism, sadomasochism, or going to the lavatory on camera.

    But just to get back on track, I can’t believe that I totally forgot to mention Buñuel’s wickedest joke about his old Surrealist buddies. André Breton once said that the ultimate Surrealist act would be to pull out a gun and kill random passers-by (though for some reason he never did it himself). In this movie, somebody does that very thing. And nobody gives a damn.

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