“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel
PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.
The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.
Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)
PLOT: When striptease artist Angela says she wants a baby, reluctant boyfriend Emile dares her to conceive with his best friend Alfred, who has a crush on her.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Une Femme has that certain Godardian edge to it, but it’s not strange enough to grace a list of the weirdest movies ever made.
COMMENTS: Just as Godard’s debut feature, 1960’s Breathless, deconstructed gangster movies by contradicting cinematic conventions and defying audience expectations, his followup A Woman Is a Woman deconstructs the already unreal world of the Hollywood musical. In these early films Godard shows a fondness for the genre material, even as he rips it to shreds– he’s only taking it apart, like a curious schoolboy, to see how it works. For an alleged musical—Godard actually called it “the idea of a musical”—there are remarkably few songs, and those that do come and go in fragments. Michel Legrand wrote a lush score for the film, but Godard chops it up and doles it out in bits and pieces, just to call attention to the emotional artifice of film music. When Emile and Angela argue over whether they should have a baby, a few seconds of angry strings punctuate each of their statements; at other times, happy woodwinds pipe up, but are laid over the dialogue, partially obscuring the couple’s words. As Angela walks down a Paris street, the soundtrack cuts back and forth at random between orchestral cues, loud street noise, and silence. When she sings her cabaret number while stripping out of a sailor suit, the piano accompaniment conspicuously stops whenever she opens her mouth to sing. A background chanson cuts off as soon as she drops a coin into a jukebox and punches in the numbers. And so on.
The jokes are in the lightly absurd mode we expect from hip French films of this era (see also Zazie; Catherine Demongeot grinning off the cover of “Le Cinema” magazine is one of the many nods to his contemporaries that Godard spreads throughout the film). When they are not speaking, Angela and Emile carry on heated arguments using the titles of books they collect from their apartment’s shelves. Angela flips an omelet into the air, runs off to answer a phone call, then excuses itself and returns to catch it as it falls back onto the skillet a minute later. The subject matter (unmarried Bohemians, one of whom dances naked for strangers, casually discussing having a child out of wedlock) and a glimpse of female nudity (not from Karina) made it a naughty picture in 1961, though it was far too sweet-natured to be a dirty one. There’s a pleasant silliness to this souffle that we do not associate with Godard, who usually comes across as angry even when he’s joking (especially when he’s joking). That could be due to the presence of the vivacious Anna Karina, the Danish pixie girl Godard offers up here as the nouvelle vague’s answer to Audrey Hepburn. Between her pout and her smile there isn’t room to fit in a centimeter of cynicism. Godard married Karina during the shoot; they divorced four years later. Perhaps not coincidentally, the director’s work turned towards the sour soon thereafter.
PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.
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?
DIRECTED BY: Lukas Moodysson, Patrice Le Conte, Jean-Luc Godard, Virgil Widrich, Tom Tykwer, Peter Mullian, Nanni Moretti, Jan Kounen, Roy Andersson, Juan Solanas, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jan Svankmajer, Chris Morris, Lars von Trier, Javier Fesser, Anders Thomas Jensen
PLOT: Comedies, dramas and experimental films are collected together in this anthology of sixteen award winning short films made by Europeans.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations themselves aren’t eligible, and although some of the shorts here are quite weird, none of them are powerful enough to displace a feature film from the List.
COMMENTS: Short films have almost no commercial prospects: filmmakers generally make them as calling cards, for festival competitions where artistry is more important than marketability, and as a way to fiddle around with the medium of film. Experiments, whether visual or narrative, that might grow wearisome at 90 minutes can be refreshing at under 15 minutes, and directors can indulge their outré aesthetic impulses without fear of alienating audiences and distributors. There are, therefore, a higher proportion of weird works in the world of the short film than are found in the feature film universe: here, nine out of the sixteen offerings—more than half of the total—make at least a nod towards the strange, surreal, or fantastical.
Although we will run down all the films on the set, our primary interest here is in “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117,” provocateur Chris Morris‘ first self-contained short film after years of making blackly absurd, boundary-pushing sketches for British television. Our interest in “Wrongs” stems both from the fact it’s likely the weirdest offering, and because a reader suggested it to us for review. Before we get to the unique films in this collection, we need to explain a little about the “Cinema 16: European Short Films” sets. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, Cinema 16 released two different discs entitled “European Short Films,” one for the European market and one for the U.S. market. The two editions share seven films in common. We reviewed the U.S. release previously, and mini reviews of the overlapping shorts will be found in that article. The seven repeats are: Continue reading CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (EUROPEAN EDITION) (2007)→
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!