Film: The Phantom of Liberty by Luis Buñuel (Part 1/2)

Stories From the State of Grotesque
In his surrealist tour de force filmmaker Luis Buñuel explores the brinks of narrating and staging the big picture of a strange world. From behind the observing eye of the camera he remarks an augmented reality of sights, sounds, actions and urges.

by Kilian

How surreal is reality?

A well-dressed man sits on his living room sofa and irritatedly states "I'm fed up with symmetry". He takes a glass box with a conserved tarantula from the table and puts it on the chimneypiece between two candlestands and a golden clock. His wife enters and they begin to talk.

Luis Buñuel was sure about most of what he included and excluded from his films. But what is a surrealist film about? This question must lead to the very substance of art, a quiddity which is always on fragile foundations. The Phantom of Liberty was Buñuel's second last film. He was 74 when it was released in 1974. His audiovisual collection of a frameless bustle gathers a solid plenty of surreality. Dozens of characters, continuously shifting settings and countless activities don't conseal the fancifully absurd undertone of the narration that conveys a stable atmosphere of existential freedom, small-scale mystification and latent desperation.

the adsurdity of the conventional

The film opens with a still of Francisco Goya's painting The Third of May 1808 depicting the execution of Spanish insurgents during Napoleon's invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The head of the rebel group spreads his arms and his bright clothes shine in the dark of the night. His hands are wounded like the stigmas Jesus suffered from crucifixion. At the mercy of French superior forces the men die a martyr's death. This first still is accompanied by church bells ringing and rifles shot. A displayed text introduces to the first sequence of the film based on a story of Spanish romanticist author Gustavo Bécquer. Toledo, 1808. We now see in moving pictures what Goya painted on canvas, detainees are shot by a firing squad of the French Army. After this the soldiers rest in a church, cook, eat, drink and sing. An officer greedily eats the communion wafers from the altar and decides to exhume the corps of a noble woman buried in the church. He wants to take her to his bed because her statue had rejected the officer's kiss. The next scene reveals that the Toledo story just seen is read by a middle-aged woman to another woman on a park bench, now back in contemporary times.

loosely connected sequences
The whole film is structured by a succession of sequences that are loosely connected by single protagonists. Their minor actions from the side plot link the jumps from episode to episode. The story is framed by this peripheral association of happenings that constitute the extensive chain of events during the 104 minutes of the movie.

The different sequences are actually irrelevant to each other. One protagonist to bridge the gaps between them is a woman who works as a doctor's assistent. When the doctor talks to a nervous man about his strange visions – which the audience already knows from the previous scenes – she enters and interrupts him to ask for a few days off in order to visit her sick father. She drives through the country in her car and stops at a guest-house to spend the stormy night there. Inside she meets four monks who become important for the rest of the evening. The next morning she leaves the house and takes a man who appeared at the breakfast tables to the nearby town. He is a police academy teacher and the subsequent character that the audience will accompany.

wrong facts 

As randomly as the run of events are the protagonists' wrong assumptions and misunderstandings interspersed in it. The wife of the nervous man suggests a family trip to the sea for him to recover but he blankly replies that the sea doesn't exist anymore. Later one of the monks believes to recognize some of the guests in the country house from African colonies eventhough they assert to never have visited the continent.

errors of everyday logic

These strange misjudgements are symptoms of an overall error of everyday logic in the film. A man and a woman look at pictures that were given to their daughter by a dubious man on the playground. They consider them vulgar and obscene and yet give them back to her. After this they indignantly fire the nanny for not taking care of the girl. At night her father who earlier complained about being nervous and haggard lately experiences heavy time leaps. One after the other a cock, a black dressed woman with a candle in hands, the postman and an ostrich enter the bedroom while church bells ring again. 

Another time a mass murderer is found guilty and sentenced to death by a court. When the trial is over numerous people shake his hand and ask him for autographs before he leaves as a free man. Everyday logic and common sense seem to be abrogated. Protagonists and the story itself entangle in contradictions and inconsequence. Every time the error of logic and rationality is perceived as normal and nobody recognizes the faults.


sources of pictures 
Luis Buñuel b/w 
film poster 
movie stills taken from the DVD