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The Phantom of Liberty (Criterion Collection) (Version française)
Any serious lover of film eventually (if not immediately) succumbs to the genius of Luis Bunuel. The bottomless wit and unsentimental clear-sightedness of the Spanish master is evident throughout his career, but Bunuel has the added bonus of never tapering off, never losing his edge. The Phantom of Liberty was produced when Bunuel was in his mid-70s, and it's as hilariously impertinent as anything he ever made. Along with his (and anybody's) key collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, Bunuel strings together a series of reverse-logic dreams and surrealist blackouts, which flow from one to another without building into anything like a conventional storyline.
A nurse at an inn is sidetracked by a foursome of poker-playing priests, while an S&M couple down the hall invite everyone to their room for a drink and a show; a sit-down party has guests seated on toilets around a table; a police commissioner receives a phone call from his dead sister. None of it makes sense, except that it makes absolute sense. By the time a little girl is reported missing by her frantic parents, despite the fact that she is manifestly with them in schoolroom and police station, the film has entered the zone where comedy and unnerving observations come together in a perfect way. Many top European actors participate in this exercise, including Michel Piccoli, Monica Vitti, Jean Rochefort, and Jean-Claude Brialy. Perhaps the format limits the film from gaining the resonance of latter Bunuel films such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or That Obscure Object of Desire, but it's a marvelous surrealist variety show. --Robert Horton
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Here it really seems as though Bunuel was essentially making fun of his own intense desire to engage in biting satire, because the feeling is much more of letting loose with some laugh-out-loud antics rather than the need to mercilessly slash and burn social conventions. This is a much lighter film than one would typically expect from Bunuel, and yet that is not at all related to its significance. It's a sharp piece of cinema, full of irreverence that, as many have already indicated, is closer to Monty Python than anything else.
Bunuel's sense of fun here does not require a plot, just as many of his other films don't. But in this film the lack of formal narrative actually seems to work better than in several of his other works; we keep waiting for the next scene to see if it will top what we've just seen--regardless whether there's logic in the seguing or not (there almost always isn't).
A lot of fun and very highly recommended.
There is no plot to speak of in PHANTOM: this film is basically a collection of surrealist sketches that finds Buñuel playing with all kinds of different ideas and different images. Monks pray for a woman's sick father, and then play poker with the woman and smoke. A group of people sit around a dinner table on toilets, and go to the bathroom to eat in private. Two parents desperately try to find their missing daughter---even though she's right there in class when they call her name. In the universe Buñuel concocts in THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, anything goes.
The amazing thing about this movie is that, instead of seeming like an irrational series of surrealistic sketches, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY has a broad theme to support its free-form structure: it's Buñuel's comic vision of freedom run amuck. Sure, the idea of liberty is appealing to everyone...but, as Buñuel seems to be suggesting, even freedom has its limits. The opening scene of the movie is set in Toledo, Spain in 1808, as Napoleon's troops attempt to liberate the Spanish and are greeted with cries of "Down with liberty!" There can be times when we want the assurance of authority, rather than the freedom to act in whatever way we please.
Buñuel doesn't take a stand one way or the other, really; he's just an artist who is intrigued by the idea, and his interest fuels the free-form structure of the film, and its content. Almost anything and everything he can think of---within the bounds, I suppose, of the same themes he covered throughout his long and illustrious film career---is thrown into this movie, and while some viewers may perhaps prefer the comfort of a movie with some structure, I found its elegant chaos exhilarating.
Only a master filmmaker who had absolute confidence in what he was doing would dare make a movie like this. I think Buñuel pulls it off triumphantly here; somehow, he makes the movie seem almost logical, the way it progresses. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY is a sheer delight. Highly recommended.
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