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

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

inversion of opposites

A lack of logic makes it easy to inverse opposites throughout the film. The allegedly scandalous pictures that the daughter brings home to her parents merely show historical buildings and landscapes. The adults are in fact disgusted by the bad taste of the Greek Acropolis and the obscenity of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe.

The most famous inversion of the film questions the etiquettes of socializing. The police academy teacher and his wife visit a befriended couple. Instead of eating dinner in the elegant room they sit down on toilets placed around a large table with dozens of illustrated magazines on it. With lowered trousers and tights they talk about Tristan and Isolde at the opera and holidays in Spain. After some time they leave seperately to dine in a locked bathroom-like room. In a noble apartment these cultivated people go to the toilet together and eat dinner alone. Here, antitheses don't seem to be opposed to each other, contrasts appear as not very different.

irregularity in cultural patterns

Opposites coincide in Buñuel's work. He unmasks that going to toilet and eating dinner are objectively in no contrast. Their perception and valuation is solely defined by social norms and cultural tradition. And these can be broken and cut. Just like the monks in the guest-house who take their monastery's tabernakel to the woman's bedroom to pray the paternoster for her sick father before they start to play cards, smoke and drink in her room. Later that evening they talk about a famous monk who once was judged for heresy by the inquisition and then rehabilitated by the church and other cynical habits of clergy which they perveice as normal, insisting that it strengthens faith. 

Anything can be done if people don't stick to social norms mutually known to us. Deeds and sayings, actions and reactions grow abnormal when ingrained patterns are blurred or scrapped. Beyond common norms the unexpected and unusual becomes the new standard. On the way to her father a fully manned tank passes the woman on a country road. The lieutenant tells her that the soldiers are hunting foxes that were seen around there. She denies to have seen any and the tank moves on. Irregularity determines the course of things.

No cultural pattern is strong and durable enough not to be converted or led ad absurdum. In class the police academy teacher talks about law and delict. He says that law is only conventional, that all customs and traditions are relative. Whereas polygamy is common in some regions of the world it is illegal in France. His example is taken from the works of anthropologist Margaret Mead whose studies of sexual practices in Southern Pacific societies he paraphrases. The lesson is interrupted twice by some policemen being commandeered to firing practice and others to a general alarm for an exploded gas power plant. After this only two policemen stay in the classroom and begin to read a communist newspaper reporting on workers' uprisings in Europe. The teacher goes on talking about the relativity of culture now with reference to revolutionary movements in contemporary France. In this sequence the concept of cultural relativity that the film depicts over and over again is even put in the mouth of the protagonist whose social task rather is to claim the opposite.

liberty and other phantoms

What does Buñuel want us to hear from the mouths of these obscure protagonists? If we were to sit in his classroom, what would have been the lesson taught? The succession of strange incidents at night in the country house. The arbitrary stringing together of surreal occurences when Napoleon occupied Spain. Man as he appears in society and culture or at a police academy and in a park.

A glance at liberty. What is liberty? The married couple looks at architecture photos that remind them of their lustful youth. A doctor is having a conversation with his befriended patient about liver cancer. The head of the Parisian police tells an unknown woman in a bar how he heard his beloved sister play Brahms on the piano naked on a hot summer afternoon a few days before she died and suddenly receives a call from her. Are we liberated in absurd events and strange turns?

The shine of absurdity. The deeper you get, the less it makes sense. A woman meets four monks at the fireplace in the country house. She tells them about her sick old father who lives a quiet life in the village he was born and raised in. One of the monks says that the hectiness and unsteadiness of modern life causes heart diseases. Another states that the world would be alright if everybody prayed to Saint Joseph and held contemplation thirty minutes each day. In Paris a young girl disappears. Her parents worriedly talk to the pricipal of her school. Their daugther is in the classroom but they don't recognize her. When she starts to speak they tell her to be quiet and decide to go to the police. In the detective's office they point at the girl and say that she disappeared this morning. Again the detective forbirds her to speak and fills in the missing person form with the girl standing next to him.

We meet in relativity. All norms and conventions are relative. Everything that we perceive real or solid or eternal will appear as an opaque phantom from the right perspective. The police academy teacher gives a lecture on the mutable nature of law and delict while his two uniformed listeners rejoice in a report on communist revolt. The sniper who killed a dozen of pedestrians from a high-rise building is condemned to death and then leaves the courthouse without restrictions. Two women on a park bench talk about the meaning of the word paraphernalia. One of them can't even pronounce it fluently whereas the other gives a lexical outline of the term. Life is a polyphonic interlude within a score nobody knows how to play. We are surrounded by semi-permeable borders that decorate our world.

Together with Buñuel we experience confusion, we allow to question the order of a society and the conventions of a culture. We emancipate the side plots and the minor actions from what happens around us. We let them take place. When we talk and act we augment what we are. We live in the midst of a surreal reality.

The film ends with a police operation that violently disperses a demonstration at a zoo. To the sound of an upset crowd, shots and church bells the moving head of an ostrich is shown. It remains for more than half a minute. Then it fades out to the end credits. No conclusion. No answers. Just a reality as real as it can be.

sources of pictures 
movie stills taken from the DVD