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The Criterion Collection presents
"I'm sick of symmetry."
DVD ReviewLuis Buñuel's name is synonymous with absurdity and Surrealism thanks to his lengthy career in the arts. To call him a filmmaker is not entirely accurate, for Buñuel's approach to writing and directing is more akin to a psychiatrist performing psychodynamic talk therapy while tripping on LSD. His chaotic tales of serendipity only became more anarchic at the end of his career. The Phantom of Liberty (Le Fantôme de la liberté), made after his triumphant The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and before his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, is a disjointed expression of nihilism and disillusionment.
To say that the script, by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, has a story would be misleading—I doubt it really has a point beyond its lack of a point. Stories come in and out of being sporadically with some loose link sustaining the viewer's attention as content, time period, and characters change drastically. Opening with Napoleon's occupation of Toledo, featuring massive executions and French soldiers desecrating the Eucharist in search of food, one might expect this to be a lavish costume drama, satirizing modern society. But as soon as you settle into this story, we are transposed to Paris circa 1974, where a nursemaid (Muni) is reading the story of the French officers instead of guarding her employers' daughter from a despicable man who gives the girl and her friend pornographic photographs of...the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and other pieces of architecture. The girl's parents, M. and Mme. Foucauld (Jean-Claude Brialy and Monica Vitti, respectively), are repulsed by the images, yet secretly seduced by them.
Such non sequiturs populate the movie—featuring Carmelite monks playing poker with religious medals, a police commissioner's (Julien Bertheau) dead sister calling him on the phone, a killer-poet (Pierre Lary) opening fire on downtown Paris, and many other odd stories—and each story within the film could easily be expanded upon to create a fascinating movie on its own. What Buñuel does with The Phantom of Liberty is an audacious act of courage: he makes these incredible tales boring and frustrating. As soon as a particular section of the "plot" becomes interesting, the focus changes to another character who is merely pursuing the course of his day's plans. Once those plans prove to be interesting, we are re-directed to another set of circumstances that follows the same cycle.
At times the incessant, purposeful frustrating of the viewer's desire for a complete story is tiresome, but occasional glimpses of artistic genius speckle throughout. I suspect that each individual who sees the film will relate to different parts of it based on his own ideology and personality. Two particular components struck me vividly, one in a good way and the other negatively. The telling of a young man and his aunt checking into an inn for a night of debauchery instilled great discomfort in my stomach. I won't explain what transpires or how, but while viewing this disturbing scene I could not sit still, yet I could not look away from the screen. What would happen next and for what reason, if any, would it happen? The highlight of the film comes near its end, when the Legendre family loses their only daughter in spite of her being by their side and conversing with them during their 14-month pursuit of her. It's a brilliant, damning indictment of the West's blindness to its own children's needs.
Yet the film misses the mark just as much as it hits it, with only the impeccable cinematography of Edmond Richard serving to make every moment worthy of attention. Ultimately, I suspect, this is a result of Buñuel's implicit self-defeating claim that all truth is relative (a claim that, in and of itself, asserts an absolute truth). Like his other works, The Phantom of Liberty falls victim to the postmodern decadence of contemporary intelligentsia and, although at times it may merit a brief listen, the bloated ego of the artist loses sight of how little he truly has to say, causing the overall experience to be confounding. I admire Buñuel's courage at pursuing his principles of gratuity, but I can't ignore the fact that his views don't mesh well with the real world.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen image looks awfully good, despite some mosquito noise in exterior night scenes (especially when the police commissioner enters into his sister's crypt). Detail is sharp, fleshtones are accurate, and contrast is solid. Depth is strong, creating a film-like look. Nicely done!
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The original French mono track is preserved for this DVD, with no hiss or other audio defects. The dialogue, music, and sound effects are well balanced, creating a pleasant presentation of the original theatrical experience.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
On the disc itself, there's a video introduction by co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (4m:40s). About half of it is a clip from the movie, but Carrière's comments are a welcomed inclusion, as he expresses what he finds successful and disappointing in the movie. The theatrical trailer is also presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and highlights how impressive the image transfer is.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsSometimes entertaining and at others boring, The Phantom of Liberty (Le Fantôme de la liberté) is always daring. Criterion's stellar transfer brings the visuals to life and the extras are a nice addition for this DVD release.
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