The Phantom of Liberty!

Director: Luis Bunuel

Stars out of 10: 9.0

Luis Bunuel’s films are among the most difficult to understand. Watch An Andalusian Dog, and if you manage to understand more than 2 minutes of it, then you have made it more than I ever could. Same goes for Belle De Jour, although it is pretty much straightforward – It is the ending that has left a-many baffled. This film, however, is beyond anything I’ve seen. The Phantom of Liberty is an absurd, but delicious surreal film that has amusing little scenes here and there. Characters are not given enough screen time to form a personality and associate themselves with the backdrop, and being a surreal film, many events are left unexplained and a large body of them cover taboo topics. Unusual traits for a movie, but then again Bunuel was no usual, everyday director. The scenes don’t make sense, and instead of a cut-scene or fade away, the minor character of that said scene becomes the major character of the next scene with a little help from the major character from the previous scene. Sort of like the Hotswap feature from Battlefield; When you’re thrown in battle, every soldier is just a soldier, but when you Hotswap to a certain soldier, he becomes something much more, he immediately becomes the main character, even though he is not. Same thing with this film. The scenes, like I said before, don’t make sense but that’s just the surface. I believe there to be rational explanations behind it and, whether it was his aim or not, satirical under-tones. The film opens with the French executing the Spanish and then raiding a church, where one of the best surreal scene happens. Then it cuts to a park where two girls are cycling. A man watches them with fascination, hinting at pedophilia, and proceeds to show them pictures, to which the audience thinks are dirty pictures. When they arrive home, and when the girl shows her parents the pictures, they turn to be picture postcards of buildings. Over here Bunuel plays with our fixed mindset that whatever a stranger shows to little girls / boys has to be pornographic. It kinda slaps us in the face, really. When the adults are shown to be quite turned-on – and turned-off – by the buildings, was Bunuel in any way hinting at object sexuality, a.k.a Objektophilia? Then whatever follows after that till the point where the husband meets the doctor, I’m afraid I could not make heads or tails out of it, but it remained a colourful watch.

Then we see the nurse, the minor character in the above mentioned scene, become the major character in this scene. She takes refuge in a motel from the storm. There she meets some monks (from the early church scene, perhaps?). When the nurse tells them of her father’s sickness, they agree to pray for her father in her room. Time passes and the monks are shown, alongside the nurse and the motel manager, to be playing poker and drinking alcohol. Whatever point Bunuel wanted to make here I don’t think I got it but I believe he was playing on the characteristics of motels, or small run-down hotels, but they’re practically the same thing with little differences. These places are a great place to hide-out and unleash the dark, sexual side of your nature and it has an aggressive, sexual personality to it. Things are done almost freely there, as evidenced by the young man who brings his aunt for an incestuous relationship and the BDSM relationship between the businessman and his assistant.

The main highlight, and understanding, of the film lies in the police academy classroom with the professor talking about laws, morality, customs and taboo. I believe if the viewer can understand that scene or bring himself to connect 2 & 2 together, then I believe the viewer can make sense out of the film, tie all the knots. The professor uses an example of a dinner party which he attended with his wife. They sit around a dinner table but not on chairs, but rather toilets. They talk about defecation and any mention of food is considered rude or impolite. Then one of them retires to a little room to eat. In short, the rules and attitudes of a dinner table and bathroom have been switched. I guess if you look at it from the modern point of view, retiring to a little room to eat makes sense. When we eat, we retreat into a private box of our own and any disturbance comes off as irritating – of course this is all metamorphical. But when we’re on the toilet, our mind wanders far off and starts wondering about the mysteries of life and/or the current situation of the world. I wish I could make my point a little clear but I think you get the picture.

Then the class is dismissed and we get a shot of a speeding driver, who is promptly given a ticket. It turns out he was on his way to visiting his doctor. The doctor says the driver has cancer and offers him a cigarette (did I notice sarcasm there?) and receives a slap on the face. The whole chapter concerning Mr. Legrande – the driver – is absurd at its best. But it is absurd in a reeling and positive manner that provokes a lot of WTF? moments and unintentional laughs. Once he reaches home, they receive a call from the school informing that their daughter is missing. They race to the school only to find that the daughter is sitting in the classroom, yet the adults act as if she’s not there and report to the police, despite the fact they acknowledge her presence. The police-station scene is a riot. Like I said, absurd all right. I think what Bunuel did here was he switched the roles and bought everything – that would’ve been behind the curtains in other films – forward, and silly it may sound, it alluded to many real life situations. I can’t exactly pinpoint it out but I guess I’ll have to see the film again.

After this, we follow a man with a briefcase to the top of a building. The briefcase is opened and reveals a sniper, to which the man uses it to shoot random people on the streets. He is eventually caught and sentenced to death but leaves the courtroom as a hero, even signing autographs. There’s no deciphering here. Personalities like him are recognized as heroes and or admirable figures in our twisted world of today, so I guess Bunuel saw it coming. Then the rest of the film follows in a psychological manner, and I only “understood” 1/5 of it, but I guess it might get cleared up in the second viewing. Or maybe not!

The ending of the film takes place in a zoo. Could the ending be the opening of the film? After all the shout that was heard at the end was also heard at the starting. The camera suddenly starts spinning in a blurry motion, making things confusing… also, what was the significance of the ostrich?

I believe the normal approach – the way you approach other “normal” films – should not be adopted here. If possible, try to find out the logic behind the scenes in as parallel-manner as possible, and try to understand it from a psychological and/or metamorphical view-point. Remember, this is a surreal film directed Luis Bunuel, and it is no easy to decipher than the Zodiac Killer’s “farewell” note.

I like watching films like these because no matter what conclusion you – or anyone else – come to, no-one is right or wrong!

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