The opening scene is inspired by "The Kiss", a short story by Spanish post-romanticist writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and by Francisco Goya's painting The Third of May 1808. Toledo, 1808. The city has been occupied by French Napoleonic troops. A firing squad executes a small group of Spanish rebels who cry out "Long live chains!" or "Death to the gabachos!" -a Spanish pejorative term for "Frenchmen"-. The troops are encamped in a Catholic church which they desecrate by drinking, singing, and eating the communion wafers. The captain caresses a statue of Doña Elvira de Castañeda and is knocked unconscious by the statue of her husband, Don Pedro López de Ayala. In revenge, the captain exhumes Doña Elvira's body to find her face has not decomposed; there is a suggestion of intended necrophilia.
Cut to the present day where a nanny is reading the voice-over from a book whilst seated on a park bench. The children in her care are given some pictures by a strange man in the park. There are implications of child abduction or pedophilia. Cut to a close-up of a spider and the interior of a bourgeois apartment where a man is "fed up with symmetry" as he rearranges his mantelpiece. The children arrive home and show the pictures to their parents who are shocked that the girls have such images. The parents are disgusted and yet erotically stimulated by the images. When we see the images, they are revealed as picture postcards of French architecture. The parents then let the children keep the pictures and dismiss the nanny. At bedtime, the husband cannot sleep as he is woken in the night by a cockerel, a postman and an emu wandering through his bedroom.
In the next scene, the husband visits his doctor, who dismisses these nighttime experiences as apparitions despite the fact that the husband has physical evidence in the form of a letter from the nocturnal postman. The evidence is never considered as the doctor's nurse interrupts the conversation to tell her employer that she must visit her sick father. The nurse drives through a rainy night, meeting a military tank on the road that is apparently hunting foxes. The soldiers tell her that the road ahead is blocked. The nurse drives to an isolated hotel.
A storm breaks as the nurse checks in at the small rural hotel. Some Carmelite monks are also staying at the hotel. She takes supper in her room while a flamenco dancer and guitarist perform in an adjacent room. The monks interrupt her as she is dressing for bed. They offer to use a holy effigy and prayer to assist her sick father, they begin to pray. Time has passed and the monks are playing a game of poker with the nurse and the hotel manager, gambling with holy relics, smoking and drinking alcohol.
That same night, some new guests arrive at the hotel: a young man and his aunt. The young nephew has brought his aunt to the hotel for an incestuous affair – yet another sexual taboo is addressed. They retire to their room, the elderly aunt confesses that she is a virgin, when the nephew pulls back the sheets to look at her naked body, she has the body of a young woman. The nephew is refused by his aunt and leaves his room to join another couple (a hatter and his female assistant) for a drink. The nurse and the four monks are also invited into the hatter's room. While the guests are socializing, the hatter's assistant dons a dominatrix outfit with a whip. The hatter, who is wearing bottomless trousers, proceeds to be masochistically flagellated by his assistant in front of the other guests who are shocked and leave. The nephew returns to his aunt, who is now willing to make love with him.
The next morning, the nurse leaves for the town of Argenton, giving a lift to another resident who is breakfasting in the bar. This resident is a professor at the police academy. He is dropped off at work where he gives a lecture to a class of delinquent policemen, who behave like schoolchildren, on the subject of the relativism of laws, customs and taboos. The lecture is constantly interrupted, either by the police being called away to respond to crimes being committed, or their own childish pranks, until only two officers are left in the class. The professor continues, using a dinner party at his friends’ house to illustrate a point he is making. We then cut to the ‘dinner’ party which is being held in a modern bourgeois apartment.
The guests are seated around the table on flushing toilets. They politely discuss various issues around the topic of defecation whilst publicly using the toilets that they are sitting on. When a guest is hungry, he excuses himself and retires to the dining room, a private cubicle, to eat food.
We cut back to the police lecture. The two policeman go on duty where they stop a speeding motorist (Mr. Legendre) who is rushing to see his doctor. Mr. Legendre is eventually told by his doctor that he has cancer and offered a cigarette, he slaps his doctor and returns home. Once home, he tells his wife that nothing is wrong with him. They receive a phone call informing them that their daughter has disappeared from school.
We now cut to the school where the teachers insist that the little girl has vanished despite the fact that she is physically present. Her disappearance is reported to the police, the girl is present but none of the adults admit to her presence. In this absurdist scene, she is there – the adults are able to see and speak to her – yet they act as if she is missing.
We follow one of the policemen, who is having his shoes shined. We then follow the man who is sitting next to him to the top of a tower block (the Tour Montparnasse). This man is a sniper who randomly kills people in the streets below. He is arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to death but leaves the courtroom to be treated as a celebrity.
Mr. Legendre is called to see the Prefect of Police who returns the missing daughter. The Prefect is about to read a letter explaining how the girl was found - reading the very same narrative that the nanny was reading at the beginning of the film - but is interrupted and leaves to visit a bar. In the bar, he meets a woman who looks like his dead sister (we see a flashback in which he remembers his sister playing the piano, naked). He then receives a phone call from his dead sister, asking him to meet her at the mausoleum. When he visits the cemetery at night, he finds a telephone in the crypt by his sister's coffin. Her hair is hanging out of the coffin. He is suddenly arrested for desecration by officers who refuse to believe that he is the Prefect of Police.
The Prefect is taken to his office, where a different man takes his place. The two men treat each other cordially and discuss crowd control as if they are acquainted. We see the animals in the zoo, the two police chiefs arrive, and direct police control of an unseen riot. The film ends with a close-up shot of an ostrich's head.Adriana Asti - the Prefect of Police's sister/Lady in blackJulien Bertheau - the First Prefect of PoliceJean-Claude Brialy - Mr. FoucauldAdolfo Celi - Doctor PasoliniAnne-Marie Deschodt - Mlle RosenblumPaul Frankeur - InnkeeperPierre Lary - The sniperMichael Lonsdale - The hatterPierre Maguelon - Gérard, the policemanFrançois Maistre - ProfessorHélène Perdrière - AuntMichel Piccoli - Second Prefect of PoliceClaude Piéplu - Commissioner of policeJean Rochefort - Mr. LegendreBernard Verley - JudgeMonica Vitti - Mrs. FoucauldMilena Vukotic - NurseGuy Montagné - Young MonkMarcel Pérès - Old MonkPaul Le Person - Gabriel, MonkBernard Musson - MonkChantal Ladesou - Toilet paper's woman
Historical and social context
The Phantom of Liberty was Buñuel's penultimate film. At the time of production, he was 74 years old and considering retirement. Buñuel summarizes many of the concerns that permeate his work:
Chance governs all things; necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for any one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.
The film contains short incidents and scenarios collected from throughout Buñuel's life, arranged in the style of a surreal game where seemingly disconnected ideas are linked by chance encounters. Writer Gary Indiana notes that the film was written by Buñuel and Carrière "telling each other their dreams every morning."
The film is infused with his personal experience. It opens in Toledo, Spain, a city that so impressed the young Buñuel that in 1923 he founded a group called the "Order of Toledo". When he was a student in Madrid, he saw a dead woman's hair ‘growing’ from a tomb in the moonlight. The sight made a strong impression on him and he used it in this film some fifty years later. In the 1940s, when he lived in Los Angeles but had no prospects of film work, he wrote down an idea about a missing girl whose parents fruitlessly search for her while she is beside them; invisible and yet not invisible. When the Carmelite monk says "If everyone prayed every day to Saint Joseph, peace and quiet would prevail", this was a quote that had stuck with Buñuel when he was visiting a monastery in the 1960s. One of the most poignant biographical details used in The Phantom of Liberty is the sequence when the doctor tries to avoid telling his patient that he has cancer of the liver. This was based on Buñuel's experience of being told that he had a cyst on his liver (he died of cancer of the liver in 1983).
The title of the film is a homage to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, specifically a reference to the opening sentence: "A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism" (in French, "spectre" is translated as fantôme). This sentence refers to the way in which the idea of Communism was being used pejoratively by the authorities in the mid-19th century to attack all political parties opposed to the established order (church, aristocracy and state). The Communist Manifesto was written to offer a positive vision of the views, aims and tendencies of Communists from across Europe. Buñuel and the Surrealists were closely linked to the Communists in the 1930s, but by the 1950s he had developed a greater antipathy towards the party.
The title of The Phantom of Liberty is also taken from this line of dialogue from his 1969 film The Milky Way: "I experience in every event that my thoughts and my will are not in my power. And that my liberty is only a phantom." This possibly refers to the way in which the movements for civil rights of the 1960s had been seen as a threat to the established order – the ‘phantom’ of radical liberal ideas ‘haunting’ capitalist society. It is more likely to refer to the illusive nature of freedom, to the ways in which our destinies are controlled by chance, or, as Buñuel would have it:
We so often find ourselves at complicated crossroads which lead to other crossroads, to ever more fantastic labyrinths. Somehow we must choose a path.
This quote not only parallels the structure of the film but also summarizes Buñuel's philosophy of life. After being awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in the previous year (for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, also with producer Serge Silberman and writer Jean-Claude Carriere), he appears to have regained the creative autonomy of his early films. The Phantom of Liberty can therefore be seen as a personal film from a director reflecting back on a long creative career.
Narrative structure, characters and themes
The Phantom of Liberty is a film that celebrates the notion of chance encounters and takes this concept to ‘wage war’ on the very idea of story-telling. The overall structure of the film is one of seemingly unconnected episodes linked together by random encounters. The story is passed from one scene to the next as if the narrative is a relay race: the narrative ‘baton’ is passed on by means of a minor character from one scene becoming the next major character. When watching a film, we usually expect the various interlocking narratives to be revisited and the film to end with a clear resolution to each story. In this film, we are left wondering what will happen in each section and most of the characters do not reappear. As mentioned earlier, a number of the scenes in the film are taken from Buñuel's own experience and structured using the surrealist notion of automatism or stream of consciousness, where ideas are allowed to develop without the control of reason or aesthetics.
Buñuel outlines the film's themes in his autobiography as being:The search for truth and the need to abandon the truth as soon as you have found it.The implacable nature of social rituals.The importance of coincidence.The importance of personal morality.The essential mystery of all things.
The characters in the film, of which there are more than forty credited, are taken from a range of middle-class ‘types’. The characters are not particularly allowed to develop as personalities; they are more like a series of fairly sympathetic stereotypes that represent institutions and professions as diverse as: religious orders, doctors, nurses, the police, the military and the teaching profession. Each character appears to be subject to coincidence and has no control over his fate. Their situations appear to be the consequence of the social rituals, laws and morality that the Professor discusses at the police academy.
In its suggestion of various sexual transgressions, the film emphasizes how the concept of morality is a personal issue. The lack of explanation or resolution illustrates the mystery of nature or reality. This, coupled with its economic style, could allow you to use the text to interrogate perceptions of reality and conventions of realism.
Renowned for his ability to work to tight budgets and schedules (after his experiences of working in the Mexican film industry), Buñuel was more concerned with constructing ideas than complex sets or Expressionistic cinematic style. One example of his economic style is the scene where he receives a telephone call from his dead sister; we don’t have to see the corpse reach out from the coffin – it is easier to show the telephone (a cheap prop), and allow our imaginations to construct the scenario.
It is also interesting to note the lack of a musical score in the soundtrack, subtle sound effects (for which Buñuel is credited) are used to create atmosphere. One example of this is the riot at the end of the film, suggested only by the sound effects. Contrast this with Bernardo Bertolucci's reconstruction of the 1968 Parisian riots in The Dreamers (2003); expensive to stage, involving the use of a large cast and crew and closing down Parisian streets.
Buñuel's previous production, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and his next and final film, That Obscure Object of Desire was a more conventional narrative. Below is a selection of critical comments on the film:
Like Discreet Charm, the plot-free Phantom of Liberty is a patchwork of comedic sketches and sight gags through which Buñuel ravages a complacent European culture and the various sexual hang-ups and historical and cultural disconnects of its inhabitants. The surrealist images range from the profane to the comical, from the absurd to the rational, and from the ambiguous to the idiotic. This heady, almost off-putting masterwork isn't particularly easy to decipher (maybe we aren't meant to), which is why it's best to approach it as a literal comedy of manners.
The structure of the narrative is similar to schizophrenic thought, which is structured in a linear narrative by means of the excessive and exaggerated linearity of each constitutive segment.
The Phantom of Liberty is one of the most audacious and unconventional films in cinema history. Directed by Luis Buñuel, The Phantom of Liberty may very well be the most accomplished, ambitious and surrealist work of his 54-year film career. Indeed, this is a film that deals with a variety of transgressive subjects such as fetishism, necrophilia, incest, mass murder, sadomasochism, and pedophilia with a network of storytelling devices and narrative forms and presents an intense criticism against established social institutions. It is a complex, paradoxical, subversive and radical film, which has promoted endless debates and encouraged a variety of readings.
"Le Fantôme de la Liberté" is dozens of stories that lead from one to another with a dreamlike logic, and a dream-like way of never quite arriving at a neatly satisfactory conclusion. It is not for people who see movies as butterflies, trophies to be netted, pinned down, then pulled apart with tweezers. The movie can't be pinned down. There's no single correct way to read it, which is not a rationale for its ambiguities, but a rigorous instruction to those who would enjoy all that is most marvelous and poetic in surrealism at its best.
Today, reception for The Phantom of Liberty is highly positive; Rotten Tomatoes reports 88% approval among 17 critics, with an average rating of 8.3/10.