Like Reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure From Cover to Cover: The Phantom of Liberty

01/23/2013 4:00 AM |

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Wednesday, January 23, at IFC Center, part of its Modern School of Film series

This late-career gem from Buñuel proves his surrealist edge didn’t dull with age. The film marks the final chapter in an informal trilogy (with The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), adopting a fast-and-loose narrative structure that recalls the director’s earliest films. It plays like a collection of short stories that begin in medias res and trail off without any conclusion, akin to reading a “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” novel from cover to cover. Storylines, characters and entire settings are discarded by the quick pace, making it seem like an entirely new film begins as soon as a scene fades out. There is an unbridled sense of freedom in all this that requires an affinity (or patience) for Buñuel’s subversive spirit as he tackles favorite targets like class, Catholicism, desire, and social conventions with his own distinctive brand of irreverence.

The satirical tone in these vignettes has gotten sharper in recent years. A wealthy couple files a missing child report even though the kid in question is right beside them; an anonymous man kills dozens of people with a sniper rifle only to be adored as a celebrity after his trial. These scenes run the danger of being dismissed as merely absurdist, but their connections to today’s headlines are conspicuous. Buñuel’s best films have the power to reveal the raw energy at the core of our innermost desires, particularly those we feel uncomfortable accepting. Free from the constraints of a conventional narrative, The Phantom of Liberty is a jarring, raucous bit of filmmaking exuberance from a one-of-a-kind artist.

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