Atheist. Provocateur. Eccentric. Foot fetishist. Luis Buñuel was all of these things and more. A Surrealist through and through, Buñuel was able to subvert even mainstream cinema, often working within ridged studio systems to produce films that were still deeply personal, that reflected his own sensibilities as an artist. Buñuel was also a dead-on satirist who crafted some of the most striking, controversial and visually stunning films ever made— a true original that produced images that would become iconoclastic. Who can forget the razor blade slitting the eye of a woman from his first film, Un chien andalou (1929)? His was a single-minded, uncompromised vision, tackling variations on the same themes for over 50 years: the Catholic Church, human desire and bourgeoisie society. He mined these tropes for decades, getting more mileage out of these ideas than most directors could have with dozens more. With The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the second to last film that Buñuel made for retiring for good, everything he had learned as a filmmaker, as satirist, as an artist was applied with truly groundbreaking results.
Perhaps the most subversive, audacious and freewheeling of Buñuel’s films, The Phantom of Liberty is also a movie that echoes the pure surrealism of his earlier works like Un chien andalou and the L’Age d’or (1930) as well as later films, Simon of the Desert (1965) and The Milky Way (1969). All of these films use non-narrative story structure to elaborate their particular scenarios, but it is the The Phantom of Liberty that is the most accomplished, the most daring. The film is structurally complex, revealing layer after layer, a charge of seemingly disparate scenarios that bleed into each other, one after the other. The brilliance of Buñuel’s conceit is that the film feels effortlessly random, truly dream-like (one of the tenants of a true Surrealist film). Unlike other films that claim to be “dream-like”, The Phantom of Liberty actually succeeds at this notion because Buñuel allows the film to give into this structure, or anti-structure, fully. He uses traditional story genres like the gothic novel, with the more radical impulses of the Surrealists to tear apart both forms, to remake all storytelling in his own vision.
Part of a final trilogy of brilliant films—The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) the other two—The Phantom of Liberty boldly declares that Buñuel would never compromise his vision, even as one of the elder statesman of a movement that ceased to be relevant (he was 74 when he made The Phantom of Liberty). Indeed, these are some of his most pointed, funny and scathing statements on modern life. And with The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel was returning to, no, embracing his surrealist roots with this film: the essential randomness of the overall structure fell in line with the original mantra of the Surrealists that Buñuel began working with in the 1920s. John Baxter, author of the insightful biography, Buñuel, pulled from Buñuel’s own memoirs in his section on The Phantom of Liberty with this quote: “Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”
The Phantom of Liberty is an incendiary work, and, within the film’s non-narrative structure, Buñuel crafted a potent critical analysis of modern morals. This is in no small way related to fact that Buñuel took the film’s title from the opening of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism”), a work that takes critical aim at the establishment of the day. But even more profound, and less literally, Buñuel seems to be saying that society is an irrational, utterly corrupt institution, that it provides the illusion of freedom, of free will, when in fact chance governs all.
The Phantom of Liberty is composed of episodes that seamlessly blend into one another, each one working its way into the next, scenes within scenes, one collapsing into the next. We begin in the Napoleonic Wars and then move into present day via nanny who is reading aloud the prior events from a book on the subject. Characters and situations evolve in what seem like random, disparate events, leaving the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. There are 72 actors credited in the film, and Buñuel uses the expansive cast to develop a wide-cross section of types. He seems more interested in the type of work a character does, or what stereotype they fall into rather than developing that character, and, in many ways, this works to the film’s advantage. The audience is never able to grasp any underling motivation of the characters, they are more often than not subject to chance in many ways, and again this routes directly back to the main argument of coincidence versus free will. Are the characters simply victims of a cruel universe (or in this case a cruel director) or can they navigate their own destiny? Perhaps they are simply victims of their of desires, lustful or otherwise, trapped in a cycle of self-imposed impulse, much like Fernando Rey’s brilliantly lecherous character in Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Trapping his characters in one circumstance or another is nothing new for Buñuel—he has done this many times with amazing results: the party guests who cannot bring themselves to leave the dining room in The Exterminating Angel (1962), or the friends who are endlessly attempting to sit down to dinner but are continually thwarted by one thing or another in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Buñuel cleverly undermines certain conventions of storytelling, playing with the audiences expectations with often genuinely funny results. In one episode, much is made of a certain French postcard, which we assume to be erotic in nature, but once it is shown turns out to be a completely banal photo of a the country side; in another episode, party guests take their food and eat it in private in the bathroom, while the others sit on toilets instead of chairs at a table full of food which is never eaten.
In many ways The Phantom of Liberty is all about the audience’s expectations and how Buñuel disrupts those assumptions by giving us what is closer to a dream rather than a film in any traditional sense of the word.