“I experience in every event that my thoughts and my will are not in my power. And that my liberty is only a phantom.” – The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée)
Luis Buñuel’s earlier religious-themed films (arguably most of them in some manner, but Nazarin, Viridiana, Simon Of The Desert, and The Milky Way primarily) were critical of the uses to which ‘civilizing’ moral structures and institutions (like the church, colonialism and governments) were put. Other, later films expressed the tug-of-war between social strata (peasants, workers, the educated middle-class, clergy and the wealthy), and how each represented character exercised, or denied themselves, their own free will (Viridiana, The Diary Of A Chambermaid, Belle De Jour, Tristana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). While Discreet Charm…, at the time, was a provocative black comedy quite unlike most others, I found that its subsequent imitations, homages and extrapolations quickly dated it. Luckily, I didn’t have remotely as many of those problems with The Phantom Of Liberty (Le Fantôme De La Liberté) (France, 1974), which I regard as a superb distillation, and extension, of many of Buñuel’s most engaging and thought-provoking tendencies.
The film begins with two of Buñuel’s favorite reference points – Francisco Goya’s famous “Third Of May 1808” painting (where Spanish resistance fighters face a French-Napoleanic firing squad), and Jose Zorrilla’s play Don Juan Tenorio, (the haunting of Don Juan by both Dona Elvira, who died of heartbreak after he abandoned her, and her father, Don Gonzalo, whom Don Juan murdered when he left her). We see the resistance fighters, defiant in the face of the rifles, but they’re crying “Death To Liberty!” and “Long Live The Chains!”, typically surreal contradictions. (Inveighing against their genuine better interests – does that sound oddly familiar..?) The statues of Don Gonzalo and Dona Elvira are prominent in the ransacked church the French encamp within, and a soldier, chowing down on communion hosts, drunkenly flirts with her statue, only to be mysteriously bonked on the head by the stone hand of Don Gonzalo. Furious, injured, but probably still drunk, he digs up the grave of Dona Elvira and finds her miraculously well-preserved in her coffin, which enables the defiling soldier to… be abruptly cut away from, as a nanny now reads from the play in a 20th century park in Paris.
Somewhat similar in structure to The Milky Way and Discreet Charm…, Phantom’s episodes seem far more free-associative and self-contained. Once an idea is expressed, and a point has been made, the narrative will veer abruptly in a new unpredictable direction. A man has trouble recognizing his wife on the street – he suspects sleeping problems and sees a doctor, whose nurse must interrupt their session to tell the doctor she needs a few days off. We then follow her out of the office rather than continuing with the patient. Buñuel and co-creator Jean-Claude Carrière, by this time, shared a familiar common language of dreams, tall tales and philosophies, and here they have wicked fun subverting standard narrative cause-and-effect, one-thing-follows-another structures. Where The Milky Way relied on its picaresque on-the-road scenario, and Discreet Charm… depended on the arc of the privileged ‘diners’ inability to determine their own fates, Phantom relies purely on how its characters react to their own perceptions of reality under quite varied circumstances.
Our visitor to the doctor dreams of a rooster, a postman, and an ostrich, but actually has the piece of mail the postman gave him in the dream. The doctor’s nurse goes to a small country inn, meets a group of Carmelite brothers who help her pray for her sick mother, and ends up drinking, smoking and playing poker with them. Invited to another room, they all leave in disgust when an S&M couple starts indulging themselves, but the dominated man is upset and surprised that the monks aren’t staying. A professor comes to a police academy to lecture on Laws and Customs, but the officers relentlessly prank him like bullying children. Off the professor goes to dinner, where the table is surrounded by toilets and set with magazines and ashtrays; if you want to eat dinner, you go into a private room where you’ll be undisturbed. A man learns he has cancer, slaps his doctor when offered a cigarette, and tells his wife at home that he’s fine. The couple then learns that their daughter is missing! They hurry to the school to get the news from the teachers (while the daughter, Aliette, stands beside them), then angrily report the abduction to the police (with Aliette sitting next to them in the office). (“You did well to bring her. It helps,” says the police captain as he’s filling out her missing persons form.) A sniper guns down Parisians from the Tour Montparnasse building, is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. He is now, of course, free to go. A woman in a bar reminds a man, the police commissioner, of his long-dead sister. The long-dead sister then phones him at the bar. He’s later arrested for trying to open her grave and must face – the police commissioner. Together, the two of them go to the zoo to arrange… a firing squad…
Much of the unexpectedness or incongruity of these situations hinges on the exercise of personal choice, or the following, or rejection, of social and moral standards. But who sets the standards in the first place? Buñuel, here in his 70s, had lived long enough to see political terrorists become celebrities, poverty-stricken people vote for their oppressors, and the pendulum of sexual liberation swinging back towards repression. The important difference for Buñuel was his graciousness – he never demeaned or made careless fun of his characters. No matter how far from someone else’s idea of logic or order or common sense they strayed, he always found common cause with their basic humanity.
This film certainly ranks near the top of my Luis Buñuel Project, but many would argue his last film is the real masterpiece. We’ll find out soon…