“Chance governs all things; necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for any one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”
– Luis Buñuel (1)
Luis Buñuel, to my mind the greatest and most ingenious of the Surrealists, was as fervent and consistent in his rejection of the moral hypocrisy of the most guarded tenets upheld by religion and bourgeois conventionality as he was emphatic in his embrace of the elegance of chance, the power of the imagination, and his love of the power of all things subversive. It seems ironic and imbecilic that Buñuel is sometimes misperceived as a libertine as well as someone who simply subversive used humour to reject morality, as in reality Buñuel strenuously worked to replace notions of conventional morality with his own deeply held understanding of personal morality built upon a deep understanding and love of the illusory nature of chance, the asymmetrical wisdom of Nature, the naturalness of all things perverse, and a passionate hatred for the human propensity to turn perfectly natural objects into things that are labeled wrong and perverted.
Decades after its release, Buñuel’s brilliantly anti-narrative film Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) not only seems to anticipate many of our current obsessions and human foibles, but stands out as much more than a Surrealistic satire or comedy; it is in many ways a politically charged manifesto that not only overthrows narrative as we know it but also seems almost frighteningly prescient in it’s treatment of the routine celebrity of terrorists and mass murderers and, more importantly, in the way it anticipates the humankind’s own destruction of the world through our own imbecilic and suicidal pollution of the earth.
In many respects, The Phantom of Liberty plays as if it was made for 21st century audiences. Buñuel delighted in repeatedly saying that he made the film in collaboration with Karl Marx (the title refers to the first line of the Communist Manifesto); but the title is also a personal nod to a line spoken in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969): “Freewill is nothing more than a simple whim! In any circumstance, I feel that my thoughts and my will are not in my power! And my liberty is only a phantom!” Buñuel firmly believed that chance governs our lives, and as much as they could, Buñuel and his screenwriting companion Jean-Claude Carrière tried to invite chance at every opportunity into the writing of The Phantom of Liberty.
The Phantom of Liberty is a very loosely connected series of unfinished narratives. Buñuel and Carrière spent considerable time together working on the script and were such close and intimate companions that they felt that they could complete one another’s sentences. Buñuel was looking for a new challenge in his work, and the two came upon a plan to avoid symmetry and the basic narrative conventions of a beginning, a middle and an ending. As much as they could they included their dreams and daydreams in this process; scenes are only loosely connected through a character, if at all, yet nothing ever seems out of place. In rejecting narrative conventions, they were freed of much of the baggage of narrative, and each time a sequence seems about to reach a “climax”, the film cuts to another sequence.
This construction is both frustrating and liberating for the viewer, and pokes fun at our insistence on making order out of chaotic events. When we have had a particularly strange dream, we desperately try to make sense of it as it slips away. This is exactly the feeling we get while watching The Phantom of Liberty. The Surrealists were famously obsessed with accessing the subconscious and rendering our phantasmal dreams. The Phantom of Liberty is one of the most successful Surrealist texts in that it effectively captures the strange manner in which our dreams unfold. The logic of dreams eludes us. “I am sick of symmetry”, announces a character in the film, as he randomly moves around objects on a mantelpiece, including a large framed spider. This is the perfect Buñuelian touch in that it invites us into an active engagement with the dream logic of the film.
Buñuel and Carrière may be viewed as a little sadistic towards the spectator, and yet they are also being completely generous in offering us all the opportunity, as individuals, to enjoy the freedom of the interpretation of the events that unfold before us. These events are characteristically Buñuelian – all things erotic or often seen as perversions (such as necrophilia, dining while expelling excrement, pedophilia, incest, sado-masochistic flagellation, foot fetishism, voyeuristic priests and just about every variety of taboo) are packed into very funny, but meaningfully subversive tableaux that unfold before us in a symmetry seemingly only bound by film editing and by our own imaginative ruminations. The dream logic of the film is liberating and sublime.
One of the charming lessons we learn almost immediately from the film is that if there is any such thing as perversion it tends to exist in our minds. After an opening that appear to take place in the Napoleonic wars, in which the Spanish rebels scream out against being freed – “long live chains!” – we are suddenly in the present at a park in Paris, watching children being watched by a man who appears to be a pedophile. He gives the girls some postcards. At home the parents appear shocked by these gifts, which we presume are pornographic images. The Mother (Monica Vitti) is not only shocked but also sexually excited by what actually turn out to be typical picture postcards of France. This is hilarious, yes, but it also should be noted that it carefully challenges the definition of what is considered prurient and immoral and who upholds those rules. We are directly implicated because of our knee-jerk reactionary response to the man and his supposedly immoral postcards.
As Buñuel related to José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, each episode in The Phantom of Liberty flows naturally into the next, and opens “like a door” onto a new world (2). Soon, we are at a hotel witnessing a group of Carmelite monks who like to play poker with holy relics, as a young man arrives at the hotel with his older aunt in order to consummate an incestuous affair. As they are about to make love, and the older woman undresses, the sheet is pulled off her body only to expose the voluptuous body of a much younger woman. Buñuel said the audience could choose its own personal interpretation of the scene. Perhaps the young lover sees the woman’s body this way. Perhaps she sees her own body as younger in her imagination. And perhaps she really has a youthful body. As Buñuel observed to de la Colina and Turrent, many older women have very beautiful, “surprisingly firm and well-formed” bodies. Perhaps Buñuel is making a statement about our ageism.
Buñuel spoke about how his own mother in old age carried herself like a younger woman and made many heads turn, adding, of course, that he never saw her nude. Taboo sexuality is turned into something natural and innocuous here (we don’t really even know if the couple are actually related – perhaps this is a sexual game or pun). Buñuel even suggests that it is possible that “an erotic miracle occurs” when the youthful body appears. It strikes me as particularly interesting that Buñuel tells this sexually charged story more from the point-of-view of the older woman, much like he does in Belle de jour (1967).
In another hotel room, a man is wearing bottomless pants and being whipped by his dominatrix, and again the female dominates the sexual affair, but the man having his rear end beaten is disappointed when the guests leave in disgust or simply to be polite. He likes to be watched. Buñuel loved to explore varied fetishes and aspects of sexuality, yet in his life-long marriage he was almost completely faithful and his own fetishes were largely played out in his imagination and films. He may have enjoyed dressing up as a priest or a nun, but he was also, by his own definition, a deeply moral man.
There are may such surprising sequences in the film, but the most famous is probably the dinner party in which the guests sit on toilets and relieve themselves in public, while retreating to a private room to eat. Buñuel wants us to question why we don’t find eating repugnant, since he finds it possibly more disgusting than defecating in public. He explains that in the war men were initially disgusted to be in such close quarters as to be right next to one another as they defecated, but they soon grew used to it, and it quickly became perfectly natural. The Phantom of Liberty asks us to question our normally unchallenged moral codes and asks us to reconsider what exactly is “Natural?”
But what makes this dinner party scene positively modern is its discussion of the role of human waste in pollution of the earth, especially considering the recent recognition in the news that human waste is polluting waterways with an excess of pharmaceuticals from our excreted urine, causing fish to be born with multiple genders. As they sit on their individual toilets in their elegant attire, the members of the dinner party openly discuss the massive destruction of the earth in a manner that demonstrates that Buñuel is not simply using this scene for humour; he is using this situation to speak about environmentalism and, as it turns out, Buñuel himself was very much against the human destruction of nature. In his interview with de la Colina and Turrent, Buñuel sounds much like a current day eco-critic:
I acknowledge that mankind’s irrational destruction of nature bothers me a lot. Mankind is slowly committing suicide, or not so slowly: each day it accelerates – producing all kinds of wastes: corporeal, industrial, atomic, poisoning the earth, the sea, the air… What a piece of work is man! No other animal would be so stupid.
Animals would appear to be far brighter in Buñuel’s moral lexicon. Perhaps this is the reason he ends The Phantom of Liberty with the unsettling and surreal image of an emu staring directly at the audience as we hear bells tolling, the sound of gunshots, and off-screen human destruction and mayhem. For many critics this shot is baffling, but to some, including myself, it appears that in having the strange looking bird look directly at the viewer, Buñuel is trying to make a connection between the two species and indicate just how absurd and destructive we are as human beings. For Buñuel, this was “the best shot in the film”, and he felt somehow obliged to end his creation with an innocent animal’s gaze while we can hear the violence of workers and students being attacked by the police. Buñuel seems so a far ahead of his time not only in breaking with narrative traditions and taboos, but also in speaking as an environmentalist who understands that humanity is inherently stupid and self-destructive enough to decimate even his own living environment, planet Earth.
Buñuel is equally prescient in his understanding of the illogic of the postmodern world, one in which we are almost daily bombarded with violent images of mass shootings and terrorist acts (only to turn the perpetrators into celebrities). Buñuel spoke frequently about how he was appalled that we make celebrities of mass murderers. He may use humour and subversive tactics, and many who enjoy The Phantom of Liberty as light subversive humour may miss some of his more serious points, but the director is deadly serious in his critique of the destruction of the environment as he is of the modern practice of turning mass murderers into celebrities.
In a famous sequence in The Phantom of Liberty, a poet becomes a random assassin who kills a number of people for no apparent reason, anticipating the almost daily mass murders and terrorist acts we hear about constantly in our era. The poet assassin is sentenced to death. People instantly turn him into a celebrity and want his autograph. The next joke comes when he is released instead of being kept in jail. Buñuel reminds us, gently, of the absurdity of a death sentence in that we all are essentially given a “death sentence” in the knowledge that we are mortal. Buñuel was genuinely disturbed by the celebrity given to mass murderers. He told de la Colina and Turrent that if he had the power he would censor these stories entirely from appearing in the media. But he realised, of course, that such a thing was impossible.
Buñuel had a personal value system that was both quixotic and surprising. Often he seemed to despise mankind, but at other times he seemed to be able to look down upon mankind as one would a small creature like a bug. As a Surrealist, he is properly associated with subversion, overthrow and attack, but he also had a great deal of empathy for mankind. One of the sweetest and funniest episodes in the film revolves around an ordinary, seemingly insignificant event that happens to everybody at one time or another (when something you are looking for is right in front of your eyes and you cannot see it for some odd reason).
Buñuel thought this mundane phenomenon was both very funny and very human. He brings a little magic to this phenomenon in the sequence in which a middle-class couple is convinced that their little girl has gone missing – yet she is right there before our eyes in the film with them as they search for her. At the police station, the little girl is herself even questioned about her own “disappearance”. Buñuel likened the phenomena of not being able to see something in front of our noses to his own habit of frequently being unable to find his lighter, even though it was right in front of him. (In a way, not being able to see or comprehend that we are destroying the earth is just as profoundly and stupidly human.) Buñuel found life’s absurdities endlessly fascinating, and full of chance and Surrealism: they fueled his fertile and active imagination.
In bringing these ideas, large and small, blasphemous and ordinary, to the screen, and allowing us the interpretive freedom to make what we want of them, Buñuel directly hands us the gift of our own imagination and thus our freedom as participants in the making of meaning. He could be playful, sadistic, instructive or political; but perhaps, most importantly, he used his subversive wit and embrace of an admixture of choice and chance to accomplish more than most storytellers ever dream about. Ultimately, for Buñuel, chance and the imagination were the doorways to freedom. As he noted in My Last Sigh, “somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether” (3). This, in sum, is what The Phantom of Liberty is all about.
- Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel, trans. Abigail Israel, Vintage, New York, 2013, p. 171.
- Buñuel in José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, “Don Luis Buñuel on The Phantom of Liberty”, The Phantom of Liberty, DVD Booklet, Criterion Collection, New York, 2005, n. pag.
- Buñuel, My Last Sigh, p. 174.
Le Fantôme de la liberté/The Phantom of Liberty (1974 France/Italy 104 mins)
Prod Co: Euro International Film/Greenwich Film Productions Prod: Serge Silberman Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière Phot: Edmond Richard Ed: Hélenè Plemiannikov Prod Des: Pierre Guffroy
Cast: Adriana Asti, Julien Bertheau, Jean Rochefort, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Piccoli, Michael Lonsdale, Monica Vitti