Sunday, October 13, 2019
Luis Buñuel | Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty)
sick of symmetryby Douglas Messerli
Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (screenplay), Luis Buñuel (director) Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty) / 1974
Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, his penultimate film, is both horrific and hilarious at the same time. This non-narrative narrative (and it is after all a series of interconnected stories), clearly sums up Buñuel’s dismissal of normative values and his deep embracement of human interactions. His characters in this highly surrealistic but also basically humanist tale are not so much studies of complex human beings but represent the perversity of life, the nonsensical aspects of it, and the ridiculousness of our societal demands to correct it or, worse yet, simply to normalize it.
Although some critics have argued that The Phantom of Liberty was a departure from Buñuel’s previous films, I’d argue, along with Foster, that The Exterminating Angel and films that followed share a great deal with this work, presenting people who cannot see their own prejudices and social stupidities due to their moral blindness.
My favorite sequence, in fact, concerns just this issue. A seemingly happily married couple suddenly realize that their young daughter has gone missing, quickly reporting it to the police. Yet the daughter is there, in the flesh, with them all along their wailing travails. The chief detective even interviews her about her own disappearance. The child speaks but her parents and other authorities simply cannot hear her. The young girl patiently, time and again, attempts to explain that she hasn’t gone anywhere. But her pleas remain unheard. Isn’t that precisely how often treat children, never bothering to listen to their own voices and complaints? Given the chaotic world that this director presents about adults, mightn’t it be to our advantage to listen to the young. The recent horrific treatment of the 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg reiterates these very concerns. If as, Stephen Sondheim argues in Into the Woods we should be careful what we say because children “will listen,” perhaps it might be even more important that we listen to them.
For Buñuel, himself, this film was a working out of his belief that “Chance governs all things; necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later.”
Given my constant observations of how much coincidence and chance have played a role in my own life, how could I not love this film.
Los Angeles, October 13, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).