The question becomes: is it worth trying to be free? Is the struggle fruitless? Why can’t we escape our servitude to the past, to society, to others?
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- The Reality of Liberty
Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974) removes many narrative restraints and frees the film from being anything in particular.1 This aesthetic desire to remove narrative balance is expressed early by one of his characters, M. Foucauld (Jean-Claude Brialy), who states flatly “I’m sick of symmetry.” What is annoying about symmetry? Is Foucauld reacting against aesthetic compulsion, analogous to many of the film’s characters responding to civil, social, and religious constraints? And how does Bunuel feel about?
For the paramount surreal filmmaker, “no symmetry” means: absolutely no restraints or we should do whatever we want. At some point, we don’t dictate our own actions, starting with how and what we speak, to salutations, to traffic signals. Even the potential freedom exhibited in surrealism, supremely by Un chien Andalou (1929) and L’age d’or (1930), can become restrictive for Bunuel himself. Indeed, the restrictions might be more restrictive for Bunuel “enthusiasts.” Specifically, responding to an absurd action in The Phantom of Liberty leads to our missing the point of the action. I’m thinking of the husband (statue) striking the French officer as the officer tries to violate the corpse of the husband’s wife. Ebert called the action “typically Bunuel surrealism.” I may have thought that as well, until I read the story, “The Kiss” by Berquer. What seems unequivocally a Bunuel trope, something he couldn’t help creating, turns out to be a simple appropriation. Perhaps it clarifies how Bunuel approaches his material in Phantom, that is, even he doesn’t need to cling to his surrealist legacy: it’s not simply about provoking responses from outrageous actions and scenes.
At every turn, our ability to identify with the characters and follow a plot is undermined. Bunuel starts one narrative, interrupts it or melds it with another, only in good time to abandon the characters. The key to this strategy is starting the film with several connected sequences and keeping the audience ready for a story.2 First, the scene with French occupiers of Spain in 1808. This story is being read by the Foucauld nanny (Muni) in the park while she oversees her employer’s daughter. The maid is fired for letting a stranger (Philippe Brigaud) give the girl “dirty” postcards. The Foucaulds retire to bed and M. Foucauld (Jean-Claude Brialy) has strange dreams. He goes to a doctor to ask what they mean, and can the doctor explain the letter a postman tossed onto the bed during the dream. As we are about to learn its contents, the doctor is interrupted by his female assistant (Milena Vukotic), who asks if she can leave early to visit a sick relative. At this point we enter her narrative, leaving behind M. Foucauld forever. Then we follow her story for an equally substantial time until the man she gives a ride to the city is now in our narrative sights while she drives away for good. Our expectation for narrative continuity starts to weaken.
- Freedom to Do. . . .
So, you give up narrative responsibility and allow the story to go, or seem to go, in unexpected directions. Put another way: the story chooses its own path. What exactly does it mean “the story chooses”? Well, the filmmaker chooses but is not obligated to take the narrative in the expected direction. Essentially, nothing needs to be resolved. Judging from the title, we can see that Bunuel has doubts about “freedom,”3 especially being free of symmetry. The inevitable conclusion is that he may partly free himself from narrative restraints, but he also passes along the same freedom to the audience. But do we want this freedom: to live in an undetermined world, to watch an undetermined film? I showed Phantom to a film class. While it may have amused them, the students didn’t seem visibly ecstatic with the experience. In part, they may have been stymied by the film’s meaning; that is, they wondered what meaning was contained in the apparently absurd, surrealistic film. Hence, we come back to the start, using the concept of surrealism as a means to obscure our lack of understanding (perhaps fearing to come to an unsettled understanding of the film’s intentions).
You first grapple with the title, pin it to the ground until it yields meaning. It blatantly states that freedom is an illusion. The free-flowing narrative refuses to stick with one person, one story, but it cannot quite shake recurring themes and motifs, even from Bunuel’s past films. Does he want to? Or is he like the peasants about to be shot in the first scene who cry out “Down with Liberty” and “Long live our chains”? Perhaps so, given that he’s playing one of those peasants!
The question becomes: is it worth trying to be free? Is the struggle fruitless? Why can’t we escape our servitude to the past, to society, to others?
Bunuel’s thesis is embodied in that opening sequence, taken from Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808. Spanish prisoners are lined up against a wall to be shot by French soldiers. The prisoners cry out. Do they reject the French Revolutionary values because they are being imposed on their very traditional society? Why, we might snicker, would people prefer their chains? The French have “freed themselves” from traditional restraints, specifically, in relation to Spain, the straitjacket of Christianity4 The Revolutionary disdain for religion emerges in the next scene. Soldiers create a barracks in a church. The interior is in shambles. One officer opens a tabernacle, takes a handful of communion hosts, and stuffs them in his mouth. Desacralizing the world is a form of Revolutionary behavior, ignoring taboos and blasphemies. Next, an officer opens a grave and finds a perfectly preserved woman’s body. He wants to violate it sexually and gets bashed on the head by the statue of the husband. The officer’s actions signal a breakdown of social taboos, which from his perspective represents a form of freedom.5 We can gauge the level of social norm being violated by gauging our response to it. Catholics would cringe at the host consumption. Necrophilia is universally scorned. The sequence ends – frustrating the prurient part of our nature and our natural inclination to arrive at the story’s climax – with Foucauld’s maid reading a passage of what we have just seen.
- Violations and Reversals of Social Customs
When taboos aren’t being violated, Bunuel turns social conventions inside out. Pedophilia is suggested when a man in the park shows and gives a packet of apparently pornographic postcards to two girls, one of whom is Foucauld’s daughter. She gives them to her parents, who are appalled. They fire the housekeeper because she hadn’t kept an eye on the girls when they encountered the pedophile. Then the wife (Monica Vitti) reacts to one of the cards, apparently aroused by the image on it. It’s tossed to the table and we see . . . a sunset! The other cards are tourist photos of famous buildings, culminating with the “most disgusting,” Sacre Coeur in Paris. Why are they considered such? Initially, the touristic banality of the postcards is equated with pornography. Bunuel doesn’t stop there. To underline the sexual content of the postcards, he has the couple become physically aroused.
Thus begins the film’s topsy-turvy behavior patterns.
1) People behaving in a way counter to our expectations or norms. For example, the monks playing poker and smoking cigarettes; policemen acting disruptively in a classroom; a doctor offering a cancer patient a cigarette; a mass murderer becoming a celebrity and signing autographs. The last comes uncomfortably close to our contemporary reality and, of all these examples, comes closest to a critique of our contemporary society.
2) Impossible actions: a statue lifting an arm and banging the head of the soldier about to defile the woman’s corpse; a corpse making a telephone call from a crypt; a postman delivering a letter to M. Foucauld during a dream that Foucauld, later, hands to his doctor.
3) Frustration of desire: a film audience expects continuity, a plot, and narrative cohesiveness but do not get it. Regarding the aforesaid letter, the doctor opens the envelope and is about to read it, but is interrupted by his nurse assistant and we never return to the doctor’s office. The same is done when a police commissioner is about to explain to parents how their eight-year-old girl disappeared from her school for 14 months. The commissioner is called away and his secretary rereads a sentence we have already heard and by then the commissioner is out of the office. More about the girl’s disappearance below.
4) Other taboo activity abounds: incest between an aunt and nephew, not to mention the 30- to 40-year age disparity between the nephew and aunt; a man and woman perform an S&M routine in a room with priests; a sniper is found guilty and then congratulated and released by the court.
5) Strange activity: the Spaniard crying out “down with liberty” when he’s about to be executed by Napoleon’s soldiers; men in an army tank hunting foxes; two men claim to be the commissioner of the police; a monk keeps asking people if they have been to Africa.6
Deconstructing taboos and customs in this way mollifies our response to it, especially the taboos. It is not an established idea or ideology. Violating them – watching the violations – distances us from the stake we have in them. Incest makes us recoil. Just seeing it, we have nothing at stake. We have been “handed” the taboo and violated custom and few would approve. It’s not blasphemy. The handling of religion is the same. The monks believe in the holy relics and saying the rosary, just as we believe in the incest taboo. Nor is religion being attacked when the monks are playing poker and smoking cigarettes. We merely acknowledge that this is not their ordinary behavior, which signals we have firm notions on how monks should and shouldn’t behave. When the French soldiers stuff communion wafers in their mouths, several things are happening. Bunuel illustrate the minds of violators of social and religious customs. Their actions stand in contrast to the other violations dramatized in the film. The soldiers view their own actions blindly, not realizing how blasphemy reinforces the communion host’s holiness. Bunuel is careful not to blaspheme or hold his characters’ behaviors under too critical an eye. His film slowly transforms into a philosophical tract: he’s showing us what reality is.
- The Toilets
The most infamous display of reversed social customs is a scene described by a professor at a police academy. He wants to make a point about the relativity of laws and customs – a strange choice of topic for a lecture to gendarmes. He and his wife are visiting friends and are shown into the dining room. Around the table are six toilets, upon which they sit and prepare to defecate and converse. The professor complains about being in Spain because there was the awful stench of food in the streets. They also speak about the problems of overpopulation as it relates to the amount of human waste produced: three pounds per day from four billion people. A maid circles the table with napkins/toilet paper if anyone needs to wipe. The professor stands, pulls up his pants, and excuses himself. He asks the maid where the dining area is. He goes down a corridor and in a small room proceeds to set up a table and push a button whence a dumbwaiter supplies food (chicken) and wine. Another of the guests goes up to the door and knocks. The man replies “occupato,” a situation seen earlier in the film when a monk goes down an inn corridor to the w.c. and is similarly put off.
This scene contains the essence of Bunuel’s approach to society’s norms. One activity – and the product of that activity – in all societies has a singular attitude toward it: urination and defecation. It happens that feces can be used to fertilize soil, but it cannot be argued (i.e., we can agree without much worrying) that there’s something shameful about making feces. We’re not in a “garbage in, garbage out” situation. What goes into the facial orifice can be the source of the Food Network and the lionization of the makers of meals. We embrace food culture and the culinary arts joyously, ecstatically. But what comes out of the bottom orifice we can’t get far enough away from. Imagine a Feces Network!7
That’s what Bunuel’s scene does. Imagining a society undisturbed by the odors of ordure, but the same society shamefully mentions food odors wafting through Spanish streets. When the professor retires to the “eating room,” he gets to eat a full-course meal. And he enjoys it. But it’s not something to be done publicly. I note his joy eating. A guilty pleasure, not much different perhaps than the relief we feel from a glorious dump.
We wouldn’t think, though, that Bunuel advocates the reversal he has humorously dramatized. Just as he wouldn’t advocate incest or necrophilia. Nor would he say that social customs are invalid because we, as individuals, do not sort them out item by item. Indeed, the toilet episode suggests more: we could not consciously will a reversal of our habitual thoughts and actions regarding defecation. That is, our particular actions here may not be simply arbitrary. Because the toilet segment of Phantom is so (justly) infamous, its effect on us colors how we think of the other reversals and violations. But before going there, we should understand why this section affects us so strongly. That is, beyond our potentially intrinsic response to toilet humor. We might run into an intellectual wall if we try to rationalize the episode. We cannot imagine anything differently; simultaneously we are starkly aware of the shameful element. We would certainly think badly of someone who advocated a more forthright approach to defecation. Could a branch of psychology emerge from coprophilia? Just as Freud and others made speaking about sex baldly the foundation of their science? Can we stomach works of art whose elements are based on piss, shit, or vomiting?8) Would, or have, audiences taken Phantom of Liberty less seriously because of the toilets scene?
- Animals and Humans
One of the basic foundations of human life lies in our detachment from animals. Subsequently, our feeling toward and treatment of animals – as beasts of burden, food, pets, sport for the hunt – depends on our being “not animal” and feeling innately superior. The latter issues forth rigorously from our belief that we, alone, have a soul. Placing animals equal to humans takes an act of will necessitating a new view of the animal world. It’s similar to the willfulness required of us to abide by the toilets scene as a reality. Yet some humans advocate animal rights, but animals themselves have not insisted on this for themselves.
Animals enter The Phantom of Liberty slowly, selectively, first in M. Foucauld’s dream when a rooster and emu walk across the bedroom. Later, when his doctor’s nurse drives to visit her sick uncle, she meets French soldiers in an armored vehicle hunting foxes. Later, at the inn where she spends the night, we see a trophy fox head on the wall near the fireplace. The absurdity of the soldiers hunting foxes takes on a new meaning when we spot the trophy. What is more absurd: hunting foxes with armored vehicles or mounting the fox head on a wall?
We do not return to animals until the sniper episode. We first see a man getting his shoes shined when he spots a dog chained to the shoeshine stand. He rubs the dog’s head and briefly comments: “The bastards who mistreat animals should be drowned.” Then he’s off to the top floor of a high-rise. During his shooting spree, we see a pigeon drop from a tree, taking one of the sniper’s bullets. This is the collateral damage animals pay for the revenge on humans (even if it is the human’s revenge on humans who mistreat animals). This mass murderer, called the “Killer Poet,” is put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death; then, to resume the pattern of reversals, is congratulated by members of the court and set free. He takes on celebrity status and while leaving the court building is asked for his autograph. The animal revenger walks away as a folk hero, leaving the animals behind.
Perhaps I spoke too soon about the animals insisting on their rights and freedoms.
There’s trouble at the zoo!
Zoo animals in revolt, though the nature of the revolt is implied. They are being subordinated to the human desire to put animals together for entertainment purposes. The police surround the cages and are about to descend on the animals, who are rebelling. We might assume they want to break free of their zoological prison. The sounds of gunfire are heard. The camera spins around and we cannot focus on anything singularly. Until it stops and an ostrich stares at us. The violent clatter continues. The focus remains on the ostrich. There’s a familiar cry: “Long live our chains!” Then a freeze-frame on the ostrich.9
The final scene anticipates by a quarter-century the radically experimental film by Godfrey Reggio, Visitors (2013). A film with few takes (22), we are stared at by a gorilla for the first 10 minutes. Reggio’s previous films, including Koyaanisqatsi (1982), deal with the beauty and destructive violence of human technologies. Visitors contains his core worldview, humans mesmerized by technology, but the title, with the opening sequence, suggests the zoo and its mutual voyeurism: paying customers and animals. Reggio’s tack creates a reverse voyeurism, with humans becoming increasingly uneasy. Our belief in the separateness is being challenged and undermined. Indeed, the opening scene of Visitors, especially, leaves the impression that we are imprisoned within our technological wonders, which includes our hubris, believing we are special and better than animal life. In an article dealing with a basic social custom, the handshake, Asher Crispe writes:
We have assumed that manners create and preserve the distance between the human and the animal. Without decorum we would dissolve the basic fabric of civilization and degenerate into savages.10
Bunuel’s lampooning of our habitual, customary behaviors, as well as manners, taboos, and complacency, underlines how our beliefs reflect particularly on the distance created between humans and animals. Phantom illustrates one method to distinguish humans from the animal world: the act of smoking. M. Foucauld lights up in bed when he cannot fall asleep. The monks smoke profusely while playing poker at the inn. A doctor (Adolfo Celi) offers a patient a cigarette after telling the patient he has cancer (the patient slaps him). The Commissioners start smoking as they are about to give the order to fire on the rebellious zoo animals.
Smoking as habitual behavior works for Bunuel because it is nearly invisible in society until the 1970s. The reason people stopped smoking has been health-related and not the result of our questioning why we desire to smoke. Most likely we’re stimulated by our parents and peers smoking, if not by television and movie stars. The deleterious effects take a seat way back in one’s consciousness (not as far back as our attitude toward defecation). I remember a photograph from the time of Scopes Monkey trial that shows a chimp smoking a cigarette. The anxiety over evolution hits on this very point. Darwin questioned the hard barrier between humans and animals. The evangelical fundamentalists occupy the vanguard when defending against a link between humans and apes. Not far behind would be those (including evangelicals) who would point out the eating and defecating habits of the lower orders. Our degree of humanness lies in our not descending to primitive behaviors (hence, the European response to indigenous peoples worldwide: note Gulliver’s reaction to the Yahoos).
We necessarily contain our desires lest we obliterate ourselves. Or end up in a chaotic world in which we cannot discern the necessary values to live a relatively ordered existence. We might want to follow our desires to absurd lengths. Or, just as we disengaged ourselves from the animal world (our animal nature), we have increasingly lost contact with earlier aspects of our past actions and beliefs. Being wary of our beliefs may not include our rejecting them, but the lesson conveyed by Phantom’s scenes with the animals suggests that our inhumanity is fastened to these upended beliefs and customs.
- The “Missing” Girl
The most baffling, and perhaps most significant, reversal-oddity is the episode of the missing child. Parents receive a phone call and learn their child is missing from the school. They hurry to the school, meet the headmistress, and go to the classroom. The headmistress points to the girl’s desk, Aliette’s not here. During a brief exchange, the girl, whom we and apparently everyone else sees, walks to the front of the classroom and beseeches her mother. The mother brushes her off. Don’t interrupt while the adults are talking. Then the headmistress calls the roll. The fifth girl, Aliette, says “present.” The adults agree: Aliette is NOT there.
The parents are ready to leave and call Aliette to come with them. They are headed to the police. The chief takes down details of Aliette’s physical nature: age, weight, hair and eye color. He calls in an officer who must find the young girl. The officer asks if he can take her with him. The chief says No, and the officer leaves.
While most of the other reversals perpetuated by Bunuel can be grasped by the audience (I’ve seen the film enough times to take the nonlinear narrative as normal – that is, almost linear!), the missing girl episode perplexes. For some, it is simply bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. Perhaps. However, the script is so meticulous and methodical that I can’t believe it has no other meaning or purpose. Gwendolynne Foster wrote about this scene in Senses of Cinema:
Buñuel thought this mundane phenomenon was both very funny and very human. He brings a little magic to this phenomenon in the sequence in which a middle-class couple is convinced that their little girl has gone missing – yet she is right there before our eyes in the film with them as they search for her. At the police station, the little girl is herself even questioned about her own “disappearance.” Buñuel likened the phenomena of not being able to see something in front of our noses to his own habit of frequently being unable to find his lighter, even though it was right in front of him.11
My first impression of the scene corresponds to Bunuel’s observation about the lighter. However, I have come to see the episode as emblematic for the entire film. We see, or do not see, reality, the world around us, subject to our beliefs. We carry around these beliefs but never see them. Bunuel’s reversal of customary behavior, like eating a meal alone shamefully in a small room, alerts us to the unseen customs that determine our behavior and thinking. He’s not critiquing our taboos or assenting to blasphemy but briefly showing their arbitrary nature. The missing girl that everyone sees but do not see is a fundamental means to get along in life.
For example, a person sneezes and someone nearby says “God bless you.” There’s no thought-out reason to the response to the sneeze. If someone asks why did you respond such, many rationalizations come to the fore, but were not overt at the time of the response. And the rationalizations are based on superstition and supposition: a lack of empirical evidence. The responder feels rational, in control of the reality, in a sense “sees Aliette” but DOES NOT SEE HER.12 Bunuel remains skeptical less about the actions in a society but to our unfounded (sometimes hypocritical) reasons we believe we’re doing them.
Likewise, the freedoms that we believe we exercise are, once fathomed, nothing but phantoms. We cannot actually grasp them, just as we cannot realize how we want to remain comfortable or complacent in our chains.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots or clips from YouTube trailers or the film. A few came from the indispensable website DVD Beaver; we support them as patrons and you should too.
- Other films that could categorized as not being anything in particular: Richard Linklater’ Slacker (1991) and Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983). In a different way, Antonioni’s films, especially L’eclisse (1962) and The Passenger (1975), move toward leaving “something.” [↩]
- Who is going to expect Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (1930) in the 1970s? Bunuel’s audiences had expectations of surreal elements, and the first 20 minutes lived up to these expectations. One could say that Bunuel pushed them well past those early films if only because Phantom entered theaters disguised as regular fare. [↩]
- The further implication of his skepticism about “freedom” (echoing the words in the Janis Joplin song: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”) touches on the political nature of the word. It means something to those who use it and maybe more to those who hear it. But it seems that it matters when freedom is endangered. The individual or social state of “being free” becomes an illusion or just elusive, much like our feeling of being in the “present” time-wise. It is infeasible. Thus, we might wonder whether Phantom of Liberty stares into the chaos unfazed or joyfully or unsettled. [↩]
- The Revolutionary-era French went so far as to alter the social customs that seemed to anchor Catholicism: the calendar. First, they dispatched the seven-day week for the metric 10-day week and renamed the days. No more Sundays. Second, the names of the months were changed from god-influenced names (pagan) to names accommodating to Nature. Third, they eliminated the Christian-era dates (Anno Domini and Before Christ) and rebooted to the Year One (starting on September 22, 1792), the start of the French Republic. Fourth, the metric system of measurement. Fifth, the French created a metric clock: 10 hours in the day, 100 minutes to the hour, 100 seconds per minute, that lasted 17 months. The attempt to change established social customs, we will see later, is an important element in The Phantom of Liberty. [↩]
- Bunuel’s impulse is less to break social chains and customs from above. Rather, his surrealist art implants reasonable doubts toward values coming from outside; hence, the French imposition of “reason” onto the Spanish nation must be looked at skeptically. Can we imagine a movie audience placed against the wall by Surrealist soldiers? Will they sing out “long live genre and plot”? [↩]
- The variety of violations keeps us off balance. Accommodating ourselves to the discontinuous narrative seems relatively easy. When I showed the film to a class of 17-year-olds, they were especially disturbed by the romance between the teenager and a woman 40 years older, more than they were by the fact that the two are an aunt and nephew. [↩]
- Years ago, I contemplated researching and writing an article dealing with the appearance of lower bodily functions in films (from humans and animals, and it could include spitting). Part of the inspiration was my learning that the censors had issues with the toilet flushing in Psycho (1960) before Janet Leigh stepped into the shower. My inspiration may have coincided with a late scene in An Unmarried Woman (1978) when Alan Bates stepped in a pile of dog shit. This juvenile fascination passed, but I have often marveled over the American shame over bodily functions, paralleling our shame over the sex act. [↩]
- To the dismay of our cultural protectors, we have examples of art made from the very substances we want to flush from our consciousness. Piero Manzoni, a contemporary artist known for his work with turds, canned his own fecal matter and christened the final product “artist’s shit” during the 1960s. In the 1990s, Chris Olili made various paintings from elephant dung. (https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/this-art-is-shit-literally/ [↩]
- The emu walking through Foucauld’s bedroom flashes in our minds. The calling-out from the zoo cages also hearkens to the first part of the film. I neglected to mention that the first commissioner’s entering his sister’s vault recalls the French soldiers opening the coffin. The commissioner finding a phone line coming from the coffin is as absurd as the soldier getting crowned by the statue. [↩]
- http://www.interinclusion.org/inspirations/out-of-touch-part-1/ [↩]
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/cteq/the-phantom-of-liberty/ [↩]
- Ortega y Gasset, in Man and People, deals with the handshake, a prototype for the way a social custom works. “For it turns out that this action of mine of taking people’s hands and giving them my own, an action that I did not premeditate performing when I went to the gathering, not only did not occur to me nor proceed from my wish, but despite its being so elementary, utterly simple, frequent, and habitual, I do not even understand it. For in fact I do not know why I do it because I know that if I do not give my hand to others, if I do not greet them in this fashion, they will think me ill-mannered, disdainful, proud, and so on.” p. 187. [↩]