There’s a bad tendency in critical circles of attributing greatness to art simply because it’s made by great artists, which is to say that anything rendered by someone with a record of significant accomplishments is therefore, by definition, significant. I’ve certainly been guilty of this infraction, heaping undeserved praise on work that I wanted to be good simply because of my loyalty to the creator of that work. And, it should be said, important artists in any field deserve the benefit of the doubt, at least to a certain degree; sometimes it’s helpful for an artist to expand his or her body of work without necessarily bettering past accomplishments. The goal of this preamble is to contextualize my declaration that I don’t know what the hell to make of Luis Buñuel’s penultimate feature, The Phantom of Liberty.
Conventional in its technical execution but abstract in most other regards, the movie comprises a series of loosely connected episodes, all of which seem to satirize the upper class, a lifelong target of Buñuel’s comedic invective. Some stand-alone vignettes are amusing, and others are pleasantly weird, but I didn’t lock into the film’s frequency at all, finding The Phantom of Liberty flat and pointless more often that not. However, many intelligent people swear the film is brilliant, and Buñuel said it was among his favorite creations. So who am I to say if it’s “bad” or “good”? After all, if I’ve gone too far in the other direction, lauding work that didn’t deserve accolades, it logically follows that I’ll periodically err in the other direction, missing the virtues of something wonderful. Accordingly, before I offer a bit of description, I’ll leave it at this—The Phantom of Liberty did nothing for me, but Buñuel was such a skilled filmmaker, even at this late stage of his life, that I’m confident something of value imbues the picture.
The Phantom of Liberty opens in Spain during the time of Napoleon. Crude French soldiers invade a crypt, and a male statue swats one of the soldiers after the soldier kisses a female statue. On the surface, it’s a dumb sight gag right out of an Abbott and Costello flick, but underneath, it’s laden with all sorts of weighty political stuff about class and culture. And so it goes from there—every so often, The Phantom of Liberty provides something accessible and silly, like the image of monks drinking and smoking while they play poker with a woman, but more frequently, the film presents things that would require either a political-science degree or superhuman insight into Buñuel’s mind to correctly interpret. The movie’s code isn’t fully secret, which is to say that mindful viewers can arrive at valid interpretations, but, plainly, only the filmmaker truly knew what the sum effect of the movie was meant to be.
As to the question of whether the picture genuinely has a grand design, it’s interesting to consider the most successful comedy scene, which is obvious and self-contained. In the scene, several well-to-do people gather for a dinner party, then sit on commodes that surround a table and perform excretory functions while chatting. Upon achieving relief, a guest discreetly asks the maid, “Excuse me, where is the dining room?” Also during the scene, a mother admonishes her child for being so rude as to mention food at the table. It’s a simple flip of social conventions, and the absurdity of the scene is entertaining, but what’s the point? To imply that everything normal and polite is inherently ridiculous, or simply to make viewers engage reality on a deeper level by presenting an upside-down version of reality? Like I said before, I recognize there’s something resonant here, but damned if I can figure out what that is.
The Phantom of Liberty: FUNKY