The Granddaddy of surrealist cinema directed his penultimate film at the age of 74. And, my goodness, what creativity at that age! What a grand accomplishment in cinema with one of the most radically unconventional films ever made! It is difficult to outline the greatness of “The Phantom of Liberty” in words but this review makes the most sincere attempt.
In Bunuel’s universe, expect the unexpected. So please throw out all your expectations of finding rational explanations to the events or trying to make sense of them in the logical manner. What Bunuel gives you is the epitome of absurdity. There is absolutely no rationale backing the actions or behavioral traits of the characters here. What we have is characters behaving in the oddest of manners. So a seemingly normal event becomes a reason for raising eyebrows. On the other hand, a seriously eyebrow raising event is met with lack of reaction and is deemed not worth acting upon! This pretty much summarizes the universe of “The Phantom of Liberty”.
The film puts out a series of very interesting and twisted narratives chained together in a very unique manner. A minor character of one narrative takes the film forward by becoming the main character of the next narrative. This is how focus shifts from character to character, like in a relay race where a baton is passed on. Now that is truly amazing storytelling if nothing else! Bunuel also admits that the episodes are derived from his own personal experiences. It is almost as if Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere (co-scriptwriter) had vivid dreams based on their personal experiences, each dream weirder than the other and they penned down each dream and turned it into one feature-length script! Let it be noted though that Bunuel’s world isn’t derived from fantasy; everything is based in the real world, only the occurrences don’t follow the norms of the real world.
The events in the film take wackiness to another level; yet they range from inherently comic to highly disturbing. The ‘disturbing’ quotient mostly comes from the display of some aberrant sexuality surrounding at least three of the major characters in a couple of episodes. There is plenty of material here to keep you glued to your seats and ensure that you have a mighty good time, sometimes cringing and sometimes smiling with glee!
Despite the insane nature of the script, Bunuel certainly had a motive to write these scenes the way he wrote them. There are multiple themes in this film, as Bunuel himself declares in his autobiography. Most notably, the importance of chance occurrences or coincidence and the essential mystery of all things, including the ambiguous nature of truth. There is a lot to be taken home from “The Phantom of Liberty”. One may also argue that Bunuel’s eccentric, exaggerated vision is a vehicle to depict how certain things happening in this world around us are simply wrong! Like a dreaded killer who should be hanged sometimes ends up being a media-created celebrity! The inherent difficulty faced by human beings to accept the truth when they finally come face to face with it is depicted through at least two episodes in the film in a hyperbolic manner. Like in his earlier film “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” there is also a fleeting satire on the hypocrisy of the upper middle class.
The actors all play their parts with conviction, and prominent French actors Michel Piccoli and Michael Lonsdale briefly appear in small but extremely memorable scenes. Bunuel, noted for his economic film-making uses minimal sets and almost no special/makeup effects; uses mostly indoor locations to shoot his scenes. There is also a prominent lack of a background score and certain apparently big events are shown off-screen and conveyed only through sound. But this is the narrative device that succeeds most. When events are off-screen and left to the viewer’s imagination, it enhances the impact. There are a number of such instances in “The Phantom of Liberty”.
Bunuel gives you quality cinema near the end of his highly prolific career. “The Phantom of Liberty” is an unforgettable film experience. Cherish this film and its maker; they are a rarity.