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With: Michel Piccoli, Adriana Asti, Julien Bertheau, Jean Rochefort, Jean-Claude Brialy, Monica Vitti
Written by: Luis Bunuel, Jean-Claude Carriere
Directed by: Luis Bunuel
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 104
Date: 09/10/1974

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Toilet Humor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The key scene in Luis Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty is the one that takes place at a dinner party. Guests gather around the table, pull down their pants and sit on toilets. They talk, rifle through magazines andotherwise engage in casual conversation. One guest rises, politely excuses himself and shyly asks for the dining room. Once inside, he shuts the door and begins eating.

That's really funny, and in the joke, Bunuel asks why we perform one bodily function with great dignity in public and another with shame in private. As humans, our beliefs and behavior are utterly arbitrary. And so the phantom swoops down to demonstrate.

The Phantom of Liberty famously takes place, like Richard Linklater's Slacker after it, in a world of many characters. Characters appear in a scene together, and the camera follows one of the supporting players off to another scene, where he or she is now the star. And on and on. The first scene takes place during the Napoleonic Wars; it's a full costume piece that involves moving statues and some serious nose thumbing at religion. Suddenly a narrator's voice appears and the whole thing has taken place inside a book, read on a park bench by a nanny.

Other episodes involve a sniper, a "lost" little girl who is actually right there in the room all the time, gambling and smoking priests, an affair between a young man and an elderly woman (presumably his aunt?), S&M and a man supposedly impersonating a police inspector.

It would be one thing to praise The Phantom of Liberty as a hilarious slab of anarchy, but we're dealing with an artist at the peak of his powers, at age 74. Many film directors either stop working by that age, or they fall into a kind of thoughtful melancholy. Born at the turn of the 20th Century, Bunuel kept refining his edge, all the way up until his death in 1983.

It's helpful to remember that this director's career did not begin in earnest until he was 50 years old, with Los Olvidados. His subsequent, chaotic low-budget films angered many and pleased even more. But it wasn't until he met French producer Serge Silberman that he was able to finish his career in France with a string of terrific films, the final three of which would rank among his greatest masterpieces: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Bunuel had developed a particular style of bringing his characters into rooms, and of wryly cutting and incorporating off-screen information and sound, that just kept getting better. The Phantom of Liberty moves with great confidence and comfort. Odd that such a wicked film should feel comfortable, but there you have it. That's Bunuel.

The Criterion Collection has released The Phantom of Liberty as the third title in their Bunuel DVD library, and it's a keeper. The best feature is the 32-page booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana and an interview with Bunuel. Otherwise, we get a video introduction by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and the theatrical trailer.

In 2020, Criterion released a three-disc Blu-ray box set, Three Films by Luis Buñuel.

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