335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“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

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

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.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 , 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)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected images intended to unplug the conscious brain and rewire it according to two pranksters’ dream frequencies. At the end of his career, now working with his second great collaborator, the underappreciated Jean-Claude Carrière, Buñuel again punished cinematic form via his deconstructive imagination. But his tone had changed by this time. The Phantom of Liberty is extended where Anadalou was clipped, based on ideas rather than images, and set its dreams in a harshly realistic world—people talk and act with superficial and disconcerting normality, though the topics and situations are bizarre—rather than in an abstract universe of pianos and dead donkeys. The heat and fury of the young man’s passion, which burnt itself out in a brief 17-minutes, had mellowed into something confident and wry, the statement of a soul amused with rather than angry at the world, a man celebrating his dreams rather than weaponizing them.

The first thing you notice about Phantom is it’s structure; the plot follows one character for a while, then gets bored and follows another story, without ever resolving the first. The segments aren’t totally disconnected; instead, they connect at right angles to each other, linked by minor incidents, settings, or characters. Buñuel was not the first author to come up with this structure. Particularly in its first transition, where the initial story turns out to be an excerpt of a book read by another character, the method resembles the “Chinese puzzle box” construction of Jan Potocki’s 19th century novel The Saragossa Manuscript (Buñuel was an admirer of ‘ 1965 film adaptation). Another notable precursor is  Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous 1897 play “Le Ronde”, where the plot baton is passed along like a social disease between its libidinous characters. Of course, Phantom is even more fanciful in its connections; as used here, the format is at the same time schematic and inevitable, yet loose, with the stories varying in length and in the manner of transition. Later, a similar plot device was used by for his experimental debut Slacker, and most recently Guy Maddin employed it in an even more geometric way in The Forbidden Room (making sure the entire chain of stories unspools in reverse to end where it started). The method has proven particularly popular as a frame for sketch comedy; as our own pointed out in our first pass at Phantom, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was already doing approximately the same thing five years earlier. In the 1990s HBO’s “Mr. Show” would later use the structure in a more disciplined, almost Buñuelian way (two characters watching the pilot are kicked out of the show, go to a party where they do a routine, then decide to watch a candid video that leads to the next sketch, and so on until it’s time for the credits). The format is particularly suited to Surrealism, because each scenario offers almost total freedom to create the next, as long as it is juxtaposed to a single association: a sophisticated version of the exquisite corpse.

With Buñuel reaching the end of his life’s tether, but finally being recognized as a world cinema master (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won an Oscar, against his own wishes), Europe’s finest actors must have been lining up for the chance to work on what might have been (but wasn’t) his final venture. Fortuitously, the script offered plenty of plum opportunities for both his old friends and new performers. muse Monica Vitti is aroused by pictures of French architecture. Jean-Claude Brialy, who’d worked with just about every major French director of the time, finally ticked Buñuel off his list: he’s visited by a chicken, a mailman, and an emu during a restless night. Milena Vukotic, who had a small role as a maid in Discreet Charm, gets an expanded one here as the nurse who meets many bizarre characters at a inn. Among them is future Bond villain Michael Lonsdale, a hospitable hatter who longs to be beaten on the buttocks by his wife in front of an audience. And there are plenty of other roles filled by character actors, newcomers, and journeymen: Napoleonic soldiers, negligent nannies, dirty old men, gambling monks, a sniper, policemen, professors, and more. Stalwart shows up at the very last moment as a police prefect’s doppelganger, even though he looks nothing like his double. ( is missing here, but he would show up in the next one.)

The title suggests lack of free will. Rather than believing that our destinies are predetermined by God, however, Buñuel believes our lives are governed by chance and randomness, a theme suggested by the movie’s peripatetic structure. If Phantom of Liberty has an overarching theme, it’s the arbitrariness of human morals and customs, the lesson preached by the film’s professor and illustrated in the toilet sequence. Buñuel is particularly concerned with, and amused by, sexual taboos: here, he touches on necrophilia, pedophilia, sadomasochism, and incest, along with a nod to his personal stocking/foot fetish. Of course, initial our shock and revulsion to his suggestions of perversity is almost always subverted: the dirty old man in the park turns out to be totally harmless. Buñuel is himself is the real dirty old man, one who gets his kicks from setting up a filthy joke, then delivering a G-rated punchline, and chortling over his audience’s jump to a prurient conclusion. (The exception may be the sniper who becomes a celebrity, the one shot that still hits hard today; what was once an absurdist joke is now uncomfortably close to everyday reality.) The absolute cultural relativity preached here is a thesis I’m not down with across the board—a few minutes’ thought may suggest an evolutionary rationale for eating meals publicly and defecating privately—but Buñuel must be credited for consistently challenging received wisdom. For him, customs, laws, morals and mores—particularly when unexamined and unchallenged—impede our freedom, revealing our apparent liberty as a phantasmagorical lie.

While an important work in world cinema, and an absolute keystone in Surrealist cinema, The Phantom of Liberty has many drawbacks for modern audiences. It exhibits the unevenness inherent in all anthology films, and I think it’s hurt by the fact that the most memorable segments (the toilets, the missing girl, the prefect and his dead sister) are all saved for the second half. And impressive as it is on its own, The Phantom of Liberty also suffers a little from being sandwiched in between two even greater masterpieces in Buñuel‘s filmography. Furthermore, neither Buñuel‘s oft-imitated structure nor his “perverted” content has much power to shock anymore. (Who today won’t guess the basic joke behind the “dirty” postcards long before it’s revealed?) Besides being dated, I think Buñuel‘s longform work benefits from more conceptual or narrative structure then he uses here: the imprisonment conceit of The Exterminating Angel, the gentle theological mockery in The Milky Way, the playfully frustrated impulses of Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. These conceptual frameworks ground the viewer a bit more in his sometimes overwhelming universe of absurdities and paradoxes. Most of Buñuel’s works (at least those in his earliest and latest periods) shun narrative completeness, spinning out variations on a theme until the film grows tired and collapses. The master’s paradoxically fluid yet consistent ideas create an overall oeuvre that’s richer than its constituent parts: sequences from Phantom, for example, could be lifted and inserted into Discreet Charm without anyone being the wiser. If you’re serious about weird films, you owe it to yourself to see every one of this icon’s major efforts. For better or worse, Phantom now feels like a Surrealist textbook: a bit dusty, but fascinating to peruse, with passages that sing like an emu at a riot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the concept of freedom as touched upon in the film is just another in the system of reversals—one of dozens of dumbfounding paradoxes that so fascinate and amuse this most free yet most disciplined of film makers… There’s no single correct way to read it, which is not a rationale for its ambiguities, but a rigorous instruction to those who would enjoy all that is most marvelous and poetic in surrealism at its best.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…a fluid, dizzying juggling act of many stories and cheerfully bizarre coincidences… strangely lucid; it has the heightened reality of a dream.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“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

IMDB LINK: The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Criterion Collection – The Phantom of Liberty (1974) – Stills, notes and links, including one to Gary Indiana’s erudite essay on the film

The Phantom of Liberty Luis Buñuel film analysis – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s essay for Senses of Cinema (March 2014) argues Phantom was ahead of its time

The Phantom of Liberty Analysis: Freeing Reality – A nice analysis (and general introduction to the aesthetic of Surrealism) from YouTube’s “Film Formula”

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974) – Otto Black’s original List Candidate review for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: The Criterion Collection once owned the rights to all of Buñuel ‘s late, Serge Silberman-produced French films, and put out Phantom on DVD in 2005 (buy). Unfortunately, this particular disc features little in the way of the extra features the label is known for; there’s only an introduction by Jean-Claude Carrière and the original trailer to be had. Criterion also lost the rights before they were able to upgrade the transfer to Blu-ray, so fans of that format (in Region A, at least—see below) are out of luck. (Criterion still has the streaming rights—shared with Mubi—and Phantom can be seen on their curated FilmStruck site on a rotating basis.)

StudioCanal, who seized the rights from Criterion, is not releasing these discs in North America. (Sadly, this distributor typically snubs the American home video market—why they refuse to sublicense to  Criterion is a mystery to the layman.) I can’t find any separate release of Phantom (or the other late films), but they do offer a box set containing seven of Buñuel ‘s last eight films (missing only Simon of the Desert, the director’s final Mexican film, a non-Silberman title which Criterion managed to retain). That means those with all-region or European players can get Phantom together with the Certified Weird picks Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, along with the more conventional Diary of a Chambermaid and Tristana and the highly recommended That Obscure Object of Desire, on DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy). Each disc contains its own extras, making this an amazing collection—if you can access it.

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

2 thoughts on “335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)”

  1. My my, the much-coveted “Weirdest!” and “Recommended” bifecta.

    I have no lawyerly background, much less in copyright law, and as such I’ve long wondered how rights get “lost” from one company and snapped up by another. Criterion has dropped the ball in this manner on a number of occasions. (Those after the Region A Blu-ray for “the Third Man” or “Last Year at Marienbad” better wait for her or his Christmas bonus.)

    I suppose by the time this “Region” thing is finally scrapped it will just be because it’s an end to the whole physical-copy ownership phenomenon.

    1. The “regions” exist as a sort of holdover from pre-digital days when local distributors would control release of movies, books and records in their particular market, and exclusive distribution rights would be shared by many different companies in different countries. Part of the idea is a movie might have finished its theatrical run in Europe but not yet made it to the US. The European company could put out a DVD without worrying about cannibalizing ticket sales in the US, where the film had yet to screen.

      Studios are now pushing the “Ultraviolet” for digital ownership but consumers aren’t buying it. I want physical media regardless. A purely digital copy would be vulnerable to being revoked or deprecated because of rapidly changing technology; it’s a last resort for me. I have a collector’s mentality and I want something to hold in my hands, artwork to look at, a booklet to read, a packed shelf I can show off to visitors.

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