Devised with Luis Buñuel’s frequent collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière, The Phantom of Liberty (1974) seems like the most ephemeral of the director’s last three films, a series of japes without the pretense of a conventional narrative, amusing and occasionally outrageous but too scattershot in its targeting to rank with his best. It shares with his other works as a septuagenarian — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) — a surface placidity which mutes an already very dry sense of humor and a subtle directorial style which lays a deceptive layer of matter-of-factness over the a pervasive sense of unreality. It’s also the most ostentatiously surreal film of Buñuel’s last trio.
Surreal has become a word that’s applied to anything strange or dreamlike, but with Buñuel one has to go back to its original meaning, back to what was represented by his film debut, the 1928 collaboration with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou. Surrealism, which was in part a reaction to the more nihilistic Dada movement, posited that the juxtaposition of incongruent images, words or ideas could open a pipeline to the unconscious — the irrational milieu of dreams and suppressed babble that suggests an elusive and more profound, though not necessarily better, reality. It was also an implicit critique of normative culture, social and political realities.
Buñuel made two purely (and fiercely) surrealist films, Andalou and L’Age d’Or (1930), early in his career. Later, when he was able to return to personal filmmaking after years of wandering in the desert of commercial Mexican cinema, his take on surrealism had become a part of a larger mix of intentions. The results were often something closer to satire (which is deeply rational) than to suggestive strangeness.
But Phantom, which is structured as a series of apparently random anecdotes, is a return to the earlier form, mitigated by a more mature, less scabrous style — no eyeballs being slit open by razors here, no sex-crazed socialites sucking the toes of statues. The bombs are now tossed in a more leisurely manner and explode more slowly. Some of the anecdotes can be mistaken for jokes — like the one where a doctor tells his patient that he has liver cancer and then casually offers him a cigarette — but that’s missing the point. The cigarette offering is just the last and most pointed example of a scene illustrating how courtesy can be contingent on ignoring reality. It’s preceded by several minutes of the doctor telling the patient how great his test results are, how wonderfully healthy he is, except for this one little thing, it’s barely worth troubling you with, etc.
Perhaps the most famous sequence from the film is the one where a group of people, gathered around a table, sit on toilets chatting amiably while they defecate, until one guest asks politely to be excused, then retreats down a hallway to a small dark room where, in privacy, he eats some food. This is a scene within a scene, an example offered by a professor who’s lecturing a class of soldiers on the topic of moral and cultural relativism, referencing Margaret Mead (“available in the barracks library”) and the then-current worldwide sense of impending social revolution. But his class dwindles as groups of soldiers keep having to leave in order to deal with one catastrophe after another. The combination of silliness (the two final remaining students act like mischievous 10-year-olds), cognitive dissonance (lecturing soldiers on Margaret Mead) and the didactic tone of the crapping-eating switcheroo is typical of the rich tonal blend Buñuel uses throughout the film. It’s an approach whose effectiveness is dependent on another aspect of the director’s style that came to full bloom during his final films — expert timing.
Reality is what you make it, but unless you’re a psychopath or some kind of artist, you don’t make it by yourself — it’s a consensus that you’re tied to instinctively, in order to function in a random universe. In Phantom, Buñuel suggests some alternatives to the consensus, all of which are absurd, but a few of which evoke a sharp laugh (or quiet chuckle, depending on your temperament) in recognition of the logic they contain and despite their impossibility. Others are just baffling or suggestive of some dream where you have to ignore the particulars (Buñuel would never stoop to something as mundane as symbolism) to get down to the emotional core.
The film is not one of his towering achievements — it’s just too uneven — but it’s a wonderful example of an old master revisiting some lifelong concerns, slightly mellowed but still incorrigibly subversive.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].