The Phantom of Liberty

Valerie Blanco as Aliette, the missing girl in plain sight in The Phantom of Liberty [Le fantôme de la liberté] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1974).

"I'm sick of symmetry": Jean-Claude Brialy.

Doesn't everyone hang out with their sister while she plays piano naked? Adriana Asti and Julien Bertheau.

Buñuel takes the discontinuities and absurdities of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie further still. Is there any other director whose approach, after decades, veers so resolutely towards comedy? (Usually it's the other way around.) And not just comedy, but very silly comedy.

Silly probably isn't the right word, as it denotes a lack of sense, and Phantom is far from senseless. What I mean to convey is the air of almost light-hearted farce that drifts through even the most violent or melancholy moments of the film. Prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot during the French Revolution. A man is diagnosed with an incurable disease, then goes home to find out that his daughter has been reported missing. A sniper picks off pedestrians from a room in a tall building. A police prefect is arrested for disinterring his dead sister. The stuff of surrealism, to be sure. But it is interspersed with material that would be in place in one of the British Carry On films of roughly the same period (actually, I've never seen any of those, but suddenly I want to): some swingers in a hotel try to get a bawdy party going with the other guests, including a group of monks; an ineffectual police academy instructor is mocked by his students; a polite party is held in which the guests gather around a table seated on toilets.

What gives it its weight, its significance, its unmistakable potency as art? Is it simply the expectations that accompany our awareness of the director's reputation? Well, probably in part. But even that speaks for the film's audacity. As I was saying, here's a veteran filmmaker who suddenly makes forays into whimsical parlor humor. Imagine if David Lynch's next movie were a college drinking farce a la Porky's.

More than that, however, Phantom is always resistant to classification, even in its most outwardly frivolous--or somber--moments. A great deal of it has to do with the pacing: the patient, unpredictable motion from one episode to the next, and the meandering stillnesses within each one, stillnesses that neither corrode into inertia nor harden into tension. A good deal of the time there is no good explanation for why we're watching what we're watching. It seems as though the camera had been set up just in case something important were to happen, and after the shooting had ended, the importance turned out to be as much in the waiting as in the payoffs. And yet there's no hint of improvisation, not at the level of plotting and transition. Everything is stamped with the confident anticipation of coherence.

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