Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty was quickly dismissed upon its release in 1974. Not only did it have to contend with the lingering success of 1972’s similarly themed but significantly less abstract The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but it was quickly followed by the dreamlike, bi-polar romantic entanglement of the director’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Like Discreet Charm, the plot-free Phantom of Liberty is a patchwork of comedic sketches and sight gags through which Buñuel ravages a complacent European culture and the various sexual hang-ups and historical and cultural disconnects of its inhabitants. This heady, almost off-putting masterwork isn’t particularly easy to decipher (maybe we aren’t meant to), which is why it’s best to approach it as a literal comedy of manners.
Films structured around daisy chains of dysfunction are a dime a dozen; most, though, are as tiresomely long-winded as they are content with their own strained circularity. This isn’t the case with Phantom of Liberty, which begins with a shot of Goya’s 1808 masterpiece “The Third of May.” The painting depicts Napoleon’s army executing a group of faceless Spaniards, and via a reenactment of this struggle, Buñuel depicts how one of Napoleon’s captains tries to defile the monument of Doña Elvira only to be smacked on the head by the moving arm of the statue of the woman’s husband. (He later intends to sleep with the woman’s corpse, and when he opens her coffin, he’s amazed by how her beauty has been preserved.) It’s the first of many sight gags in the film, each and every one as startling as they are perversely funny. All these moments are possessed by a sense of shocked wonderment and discovery, and they all more or less evoke fragile pasts and characters trying to reconcile their historical detachments.
The film quickly cuts to the present, with Buñuel implying that a confused housemaid (Muni) was reading about the 1808 defilement of Elvira’s grave inside the pages of a randy piece of literature. Nearby, the young Veronique Foucauld (I. Carrière) and her friend are shown a series of pictures by a creepy older gentleman (Philippe Brigaud). Buñuel deliberately keeps these photographs sequestered from the audience, fascinating us with the shock that comes over the characters’ faces whenever they look at these images. A bored Monsieur Foucauld (the iconic Jean-Claude Brialy) sits in his living room, marveling at the meticulous order of his regal living room. “I’m fed up with symmetry,” he mutters before standing up and screwing with the spatial balance of objects that sit atop his fireplace. Buñuel’s cinema forever hinged on chaos, and it’s obvious from this scene that he is about to instigate a revolt.
Monsieur Foucauld and his wife (L’Avventura’s Monica Vitti) fire their housemaid after discovering the pictures their daughter was given at the park by the lecherous older man. The couple then sifts through the supposed filth encoded in these pictures, simultaneously repulsed and titillated by what they see. Buñuel reveals that they are merely looking at various landscape shots and pictures of famous European monuments (some phallic and therefore more “obscene” than others—or so they’re psychologist might advise), including one of the Arch de Triomphe. A literal interpretation suggests Buñuel is concerened with the detachment between man and his cultural past. More significantly, though, the way the past informs the present in our world reflects the way one sketch spills into the next within the film. Sometimes one scenario begins before the previous one has even ended—ended, at least, in any sort of conventional sense. This forward momentum isn’t scatterbrained because the anti-aesthetical Phantom of Liberty operates using a meticulous, almost instinctual internal logic. Just as this particular sequence questions our allegiance to prevailing moral codes, Buñuel questions the way stories should be told via the very structure of his film, in effect suggesting that narrative preconceptions are as silly and arbitrary as morality.
That night, Foucauld can’t sleep because his bedroom is invaded by a series of visitors: a rooster, an ostrich, and a mailman who hands him a letter. Buñuel means for us to be baffled by the significance of these intrusions, so Foucauld goes to a doctor in order to find out what they mean. Buñuel, especially in his later years, had very little patience for psychoanalysis. This is not to say that he rejected subconscious imperatives. On the contrary, he seemed to understand these impulses so well that he allowed them to flourish in his films less as symbols needing to be deciphered than concrete details that spoke for themselves. When the doctor in Phantom of Liberty scoffs at Foucauld’s dream and suggests that he go waste his time deciphering these visions at a psychoanalyst’s office, Foucauld reveals that his dream wasn’t a dream at all. And to prove it, he hands the doctor the letter the mailman gave him. But before the doctor can read the letter, a nurse (Milena Vukotic) requests a few days off to visit her sick father in the country. And so the film moves forward and onward, as if grabbing onto the rungs and climbing some cinematic Darwinian ladder. Indeed, if Buñuel rejects psychoanalysis as strongly as he does in this film, it’s really only to remind us of our connection to nature and our inherent animal impulses.
After a strange encounter with a group of soldiers looking for foxes, the nurse takes shelter at a local inn. There she befriends a group of seemingly uptight priests who pay lip service to St. Joseph before engaging the girl in a game of poker where various religious icons serve as ante. No one hedges his or her bets and we’re reminded of an earlier outburst by one of the film’s characters: “Faith succeeds where science fails.” At the inn, the various guests (including a young man in love with his aunt) gather together in the room of a hatter (Michael Lonsdale), and his “associate” Mlle. Rosenblum (Anne-Marie Deschott). They toast to “chance” encounters but the evening ends abruptly when the woman begins to beat the hatter on his bare bottom with a whip. We’re supposed to be taken aback by the couple’s shocking comfort level and the priests’ rank hypocrisy, but we’re too busy laughing at the fact that we didn’t know all this time that the hatter was wearing assless pants. Something’s always going on in a Buñuel film, even when you don’t know what that that something is.
At a nearby police academy, an instructor who spent the night at the inn tells his ever-diminishing group of students a bizarre story of reversals that may be one of the funniest sequences in film history. A group of bourgeois friends gather at the dinner table, sitting on toilets instead of chairs (naturally, they pull their pants and underwear down). They smoke, read magazines, and talk comfortably about the approximately 12 million tons of excrement the billions of people in the world are producing each day. When the little girl of the house says she’s hungry, she’s dutifully reprimanded. And when one of the houseguests rises from the toilet, he silently and shamelessly asks the housemaid for directions to the dining room. In a small cramped room, the man eats and drinks in silence. Throughout this hysterical sequence, Buñuel pokes fun at the rituals of shame and ridiculous rules of etiquette associated with eating and going to the bathroom. Again, if the structure of this scene is arbitrary, it’s simply because Buñuel feels the same way about morality.
A student at the police academy goes to see his doctor, who advises the student that he shouldn’t smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. After diagnosing the man with cancer, the doctor offers him a cigarette. And after slapping the doctor, the man goes home to discover that his young daughter has apparently disappeared from school. One of the film’s greatest extended gags shows the man and his wife going to their little girl’s school and then filing a police report for her disappearance. All the while, their little girl stands next to them. Not only are Buñuel’s characters disconnected from history and shamefully governed by archaic rules of social behavior, they’re also disconnected from one another. This symbolic struggle haunts the rest of the film, which follows the bi-polar police commissioner’s attempts to reconnect with his sister. The narrative circles back on itself when the man visits the tomb of his supposedly dead sister, whose hair reminds us of Doña Elvira’s from the film’s opening scene.
In his autobiography The Last Sigh, Buñuel beautifully describes the similarities between the unofficial triptych formed byThe Milky Way, Discreet Charm, and Phantom of Liberty. He says, “All three have the same themes, sometimes even the same grammar; and all evoke the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you’ve found it. All show the implacable nature of social rituals, and all argue of the importance of coincidence, of a personal morality, and of the essential mystery in all things, which must be maintained and respected.” Call Phantom of Liberty a determinist film. It argues that the only way to live freely (to achieve liberty, so to speak) is to embrace the coincidences of the world not as mysteries but as naturally-occurring phenomenons, the first step in rejecting the stringent moral codes that unnecessarily determined such common behavior as excusing oneself to go to the bathroom. Truly, what could possibly be wrong with telling a woman at a bar that one of the symptoms of iliac passion is vomiting excrement? It’s the truth isn’t it?