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  Phantom of Liberty, The Stuff And Nonsense
Year: 1974
Director: Luis Buñuel
Stars: Adriana Asti, Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Adolfo Celi, Michael Lonsdale, Pierre Maguelon, François Maistre, Hélène Perdrière, Michel Piccoli, Claude Piéplu, Jean Rochefort, Bernard Verley, Milena Vukotic, Monica Vitti, Marie-France Pisier
Genre: Comedy, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: Back in Napoleonic times, and the French army were occupying the Spanish town of Toledo where a group of Spanish soldiers and sympathisers were being executed. The French were behaving abominably, so much so that a captain of the regiment carrying out the executions went as far as desecrating the local church, helping himself to communion wafers as if they were cookies. As if that was not bad enough, he took a shine to one of the statues of the saints, although when he tried to kiss it the statue kneeling next to it slapped him. He was not to be put off, and arranged the remains of the saint to be exhumed so he could have his wicked way with them...

If you think you're going to spend the next ninety minutes after that watching a film about necrophilia, then be prepared for your expectations to be constantly confounded, because that is what The Phantom of Liberty is all about. After the success of his previous work, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, writer and director Luis Buñuel continued to plough the surrealist furrow that had served him so well for so long with this virtually plotless follow-up. It was billed as a comedy, and featured a selection of bizarre episodes that were only connected by some character wandering off into their own concerrns and having us pursue them.

That's pursue as in go after, not as in work out what they're supposed to be doing or representing. In the seventies there emerged a type of comedy film where sketches were assembled with the subject matter considered too risqué or offensive for television, and The Kentucky Fried Movie was probably the best known of these, but essentially what Buñuel and his script collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière were doing here was an arthouse version of those humorous efforts. You could be forgiven for thinking that they made all these instalments up, connected them in the best way they could, then slapped a meaningful and allusive title on them, but apparently more thought went into this than that.

The title is reputedly taken from Karl Marx, and references the lack of true freedom in the modern world, whether it's political or artistic; the two writers found that with the complete freedom to do what they wanted with their screenplay, they had a hard time coming up with material that was good enough, hence, the liberty they thought they would enjoy was a phantom. You could also apply this to the social settings that the film depicts, with a host of authority figures getting themselves or other people into trouble, for example the police commissioner who tries to open his four-years-dead sister's coffin to see if she is still alive (he has recently had a telephone call from her) and ends up being arrested.

If he was the police commissioner at all, that is. Buñuel is forever pulling the rug out from under us, and if this sounds like it's going to be a laugh riot, then you're mistaken for while there are undoubtedly some very solid laughs here, most of it takes the weirdness far too seriously. Familiar targets such as religion are in the director's sights, so a collection of monks start praying for the recovery of a guest at a hotel, then end up gambling with their holy paraphernalia as if they were poker chips, but he also takes aim at the law - a sniper picking off members of the public is sentenced to death, which in practice means he goes free and hands out autographs as a celebrity, and the police. Even the family unit is not sacred, where a dinner party involves sitting on toilets round the table and eating in the bathroom, and a little girl, all the while in plain sight, is registered missing by her parents who keep telling her to be quiet when she protests. In truth, The Phantom of Liberty is overrated, as it doesn't really put over enough of a unifying theory in its absurdism, content to throw up whatever took its creators' fancy. It has its moments.

Aka: Le fantôme de la liberté.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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