04 – The Phantom of Liberty

Abstract – Directed by Luis Bunuel… this film is difficult to describe. It is about the lives of a lot of different well off people living in France before the events of May 1968. I could go into more detail but I think it’s a little beside the point.

Background – I’m a film student. If there’s one thing I think every film student has seen it is Un Chien Andalou. Luis Bunuel’s collaboration with Salvador Dali is one of the most famous pieces of surrealist art ever and any time a film prof talks about surrealism in film, Un Chien Andalou is a part of the conversation. However that actually wasn’t my first introduction to Bunuel. There’s a great moment in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson’s character talks to a young Bunuel and tells him to make a movie about people who go to a dinner party but are incapable of leaving. Gil is describing the film The Exterminating Angel which Bunuel would make about 35 years later in 1962. Angel was my first Bunuel film followed by Andalou and then in one of my classes I watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and a clip from The Phantom of Liberty.

Comments – 1: The strengths of this film are relegated to some specific scenes since there are no stand out performances. I’ll start with the blatantly absurd ones. The best scene – the one I watched in class – features a group of people arriving for what would appear to be a dinner party. However the table has toilets seated around it and the guests all drop trou and begin conversing while smoking and reading magazines. After a few minutes of conversation the character we’ve been following gets up to “go to the dining room.” He goes to a private room where he sits down and unveils a table at which he starts eating a well prepared dinner alone. This is the most absurd of the scenes and while it is not flagrantly funny, the absurdity of this film is most poignant here in its commentary about the division between class and obscenity in the upper class.

2: The next best scene is the funniest scene in the film. Two parents hear from their daughter’s school that she has gone missing. They arrive at the school and the teacher starts to explain what has happened when their daughter comes and tugs on her mother’s dress. The mother acknowledges her daughter but tells her to go back to her seat while continuing to panic about her missing daughter. The parents then go to the police, with their daughter in tow, to file a missing persons report. The chief of police then commends the parents for bringing their daughter along because it will help them create a more detailed missing persons report. It was that line when I burst out laughing. It was only at the end of the film when I realized the point of the scene but I’ll save that for the deep cuts.

3: The final scene that is important to comment on is the most highly critical of religion. A woman is on her way to see her sick father and stops for the night in a small inn because of a storm. There she meets four priests who visit her before she goes to sleep offering to pray with her. After a small cut away, we return to the priests who are now smoking and playing poker with the woman, using their religious artifacts as chips. The woman goes to find matches in another room and the couple in that room invite the woman and the priests in for a drink. As they all celebrate, the couple slowly change into their BDSM outfits and the woman begins whipping the bare buttocks of the man as he deprecates himself verbally. The woman and the priests leave in disgust.

Deep Cuts: Those three scenes are thematically significant when you take into account the riot at the end of the film. While we are only given that information sonically, I think it’s not hard to imagine these riots being those that occurred in May of 1968 or at least ideologically similar to those ones. Each of those scenes deals with someone in a position of power. The man from the first scene is a professor at the military academy, the parents from the second scene are very well-to-do, and all of the people at the inn are in positions of power (one a nurse, four priests, etc). In all four scenes they show a bourgeois sense of morality that is misguided and out of touch, a part of the cause of the May ’68 riots. If this film can be classified simply in its themes, it is in the nature of the bourgeois as out-of-touch.

Double Feature

Watch with The Dreamers for another perspective on May ’68.

Watch with The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou for some good fun poked at the bourgeois.

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