The following piece is an excerpt from Cinema Penitentiary part one, which is available from Smashwords for$1.99. July 1, 2015 is the last day for the 99 cents half-price sale. Code for the discount is SJ67P
I had seen “The Phantom of Liberty” at the Broadway on its opening day, and was immediately smitten. The critics turned a cruel pen against the picture, complaining that it made no sense. I disagreed so much that I wrote the following essay, the main purpose of which was to footnote the picture’s literary, historical, religious, and art references as an answer to those who had accused it of being cheap and nonsensical, as well as to give curious viewers a little background on the subject matter. My efforts to publish the essay came to nothing. Richard T. Jameson, editor of Movietone News, suggested some changes, but didn’t value my rewrite any higher than the original draft, and discouraged me from aiming toward any future publication in Movietone News.
In order to get all the material straight, I spent an entire Sunday watching “Phantom of Liberty” three times, as well as the co-feature, Bunuel’s “Robinson Crusoe,” twice. Here then, is my first, failed attempt at film criticism:
“I have broken the shackles which have weighed upon your nation. I have given you a liberal constitution. I have replaced an absolute monarchy with one that is moderate and constitutional.” Napoleon to the people of Spain; Dec. 7, 1809
The Spanish masses did not believe that freedom could be granted by political maneuvering. They preferred their tradition, however repressive, to Napoleon’s liberal modernism. On May 3, 1808, the day following an unpremeditated uprising in response to the deportation of the Spanish royal family, one hundred Spanish peasants were executed without trial in Toledo. These executions are the subject of Goya’s painting, “Executions After the First of May,” the opening shot of “The Phantom of Liberty,” Luis Bunuel’s most cohesive and least frivolous work.
“Down With Freedom. Death to the French” are the last words of the peasants who have been randomly selected for execution. After justice is done, the French soldiers celebrate in a church they are using as a flophouse. Their disrespect for religious tradition is emphasized by the desecration of the sacred host, which they munch by the handful like potato chips. This is the setting for Gustave Becquer’s legend, “The Kiss.” The captain becomes infatuated with the statue of Dona Elvira de Castenada, wife to a famous Spanish warrior who defeated the French at Cerignola in 1503. When the captain attempts to kiss the statue of Dona Elvira, he is struck down by the statue of her husband. Although this is the ending of Becquer’s tale, Bunuel extends it to include the captains’s recuperation and subsequent plan to defile Dona Elvira’s tomb.
The story is interrupted when the narrator is revealed to be a present-day maid. She is reading to her friend while the young lady in her charge accepts questionable postcards from a man who has been watching her play on the slide. In place of the expected transition from the park to the girl’s home via an establishing shot of the housefront, Bunuel cuts directly from the park to a close-up of a mounted spider, accompanied by the father’s complaint that he is fed up with symmetry. Since “Phantom of Liberty” is such a symmetrical film and the spider the first in a series of animal motifs, the father’s statement can be construed as coming from the effects of the boredom that follows the solving of a difficult structural problem.
He and his wife thumb through the obscene postcards. At first they are disgusted, then their mood changes to one of romantic nostalgia. The contents of the cards are withheld from the audience, creating a perverted apprehension in the audience as they project their own fantasies onto the unseen cards. When the first card is revealed, the innocent photograph of a sunset disappoints and dissipates the erotic energy in the audience. The remaining pictures are of various historical monuments. These give the audience a chance to search for erotic symbolism, although the pictures have been selected to frustrate any attempts in this direction. The obscenity of the cards is their glorification of the past. This is why the anti-traditional French couple find them so repellant. The daughter asks her mother if she can trade the postcards for pictures of spiders, which are more edifying to the modern mind. The last shot of the sequence shows the father and mother looking at pictures of spiders in the same composition that was used for the husband and wife viewing the historical images.
That night, after the father sets his alarm clock, there is a series of strange occurrences. At 1:03, a rooster walks into this bedroom. At 2:04, a woman enters with a candle and watch. She shows him the watch and blows out the candle. At 3:02, a mailman rides into the bedroom on a bicycle to deliver a letter. At 4:01, an ostrich wanders in. When he wakes, he takes the letter to his doctor, who begins to read it when he is interrupted by his nurse’s request for a leave of absence to visit her sick father. As the camera follows her, our curiosity about the contents of the letter is transferred to a concern for the health of the nurse’s father. Her trip is interrupted by soldiers who ask if she has seen any foxes in the road. When she replies in the negative, a soldier warns that a landslide has washed out the road ahead. The camera follows the soldiers at their fox hunt, then cuts to the nurse arriving at the inn.
After registering, she sits around the fire with four monks from St. Joseph’s monastery. She mentions her father’s illness to these Carmelite monks, and is given a lecture on the causes for sickness in modern man. She retires to her room, and a short slapstick sequence in which a Spanish guitarist and dancer rehearse while characters enter and exit fifteen doors, Marx Brothers style. The sequence is topped off with a French exhibitionist/masochist slamming the door on the performers, a gesture that sums up the attitude of the French toward the Spanish.
A monk barges into the nurse’s room with an image of Saint Joseph. After the other monks arrive, prayers are offered to the idol in the name of the sick father. As they pray, we are treated to the film’s most memorable shot. A high-angle on the worshipper cranes down to a close up of the graven image, then Bunuel imperceptibly cuts to a disorienting view of the closed box containing the idol. The Hail Marys are replaced by poker bets as the monks drink, smoke, and play cards with the nurse.
A student and his aunt arrive at the inn. Alone in their room, he asks her to undress, slapping her when she hesitates. Her nudity reveals the ripe body of a young woman, recalling Bunuel’s amendment to the Becquer legend, restating the theme of the past being interpreted in terms of the present. When the aunt refuses to have sex, the student begins to smother her. Instead of killing her and violating her corpse, he goes into the hallway where a gentleman invites him into his room for some port. As they drink, the nurse knocks on his door to ask for a match and her entourage is invited to join the party. As the host, Berman, and his associate Rosenbloom change into their S-M costumes, the guests discuss the variables of sainthood, commenting how changing traditions strengthens faith. A case in point is Saint Theresa of Lisieux, who was canonized by public demand and is now to be removed from the pantheon of saints by papal authority. The theological digression is interrupted by Berman’s and Rosenbloom’s S-M floor show, which shocks the guests, who file out the door. The student returns to his aunt, who is now ready to accept him into her yielding body. The camera pans across a fireplace, resting on a close-up of a stuffed fox. The soundtrack fills with the guitar and toe-tapping of Spaniards who, although guests of the inn, have been denied fellowship with these frolicsome descendants of Napoleon.
The following morning, a gentleman hitches a ride with the nurse to Argenton, where he is due to instruct a class of police officers on the relativity of law. Attempting to expound upon the social order as the purpose of law, he is interrupted by announcements that systematically reduce the size of his class. After exploring how evolution changes customs and morals, he relates an anecdote to illustrate how people disregard practicality when enforcing change for the sake of change. A group of adults are spending a sociable evening defecating at the dinner table. When a guest gets hungry, he excuses himself to the end of the hall, where a meal awaits its shameful consumption. This idiotic reversal of protocol reinforces the modernist’s belief that man is always evolving.
The two remaining officers abandon the lecture to cite a motorist for speeding. His name is Legendre and he is traveling to Paris for a doctor’s appointment. We leave the policemen and follow him. This business of intersecting characters may seem a steal from La Ronde,” but Ophul’s film led to a dead-end of circular predictability, while Bunuel uses the technique to develop similar themes down variable routes. In this case, Legendre resolves the story of the first sick man who went to the doctor with his dream letter. Legendre represents modern man as weakling. He is suffering from cancer of the liver and reacts to news of his condition with repressed outrage and forced laughter. The outside of his apartment is lined with gargoyles, but he has no desire for classical form. When his daughter is reported missing, he refuses to believe the evidence of his own eyes, preferring the red tape of bureaucratic error to his daughter’s very visible presence. The Goya painting, “Executions After the First of May,” hangs on the police chief’s wall. Legendre, his wife, and missing daughter fill out the missing person’s report. The police chief reprimands an officer for scuffed shoes, and Bunuel cuts to that officer at a shoeshine stand. The man next to him is talking about the mistreatment of animals while viciously fondling a dog’s face. In the next scene, this animal lover will kill a pigeon while sniping people from a high rise.
The sequence detailing the sniper attacks is modern, symmetrical version of random executions without trial. Bunuel cuts between the sniper taking aim and the victims being struck. The death shots are just long enough to show a minimal response from the crowd. The shots of the sniper are accompanied by the sporadic sound of a power drill which recalls the rapid fire of the firing squads. The first two shots in the sequence are similar in composition to the final two shots, giving a symmetrical enclosure to the episode.
The sniper is tried, found guilty, sentenced to death, congratulated, released, and emerges a national hero. This ridiculous variant of due process takes us back to the search for the missing child who, after fourteen months, has been declared found. The conditions surrounding her discovery were unusual: “On February 7th, the people of Lisieux were awakened by a deafening explosion. When the rescuers arrived, thy found to their astonishment…” At this point, the commissioner breaks off to run to an appointment. The incidents surrounding the child’s discovery are never revealed. However, since nothing in this film is arbitrary, the mention of Lisieux suggests the conditions are related to the decanonization of Saint Theresa, an example of Bunuel’s use of obscurity to provide a structural resolution that is not unduly emphatic. The blueprints for “Phantom of Liberty” are so well concealed that many critics have unfairly accused Bunuel of formlessness. Some have even called it a random gagbag of leftover skits from “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” In spite of such slander, “Phantom of Liberty” is the most perfectly arranged of all Bunuel’s films. The restatements and extensions of motif are neither blatant nor consistent, having been concealed in such minor details as a picture on a wall, a noise of the soundtrack, or the mention of a city.
While the commissioner waits in a bar, a woman, similar in appearance to the nurse of the inn sequence, enters. She orders port, the drink offered by Bermans to lure guests into his room. The commissioner, struck by her resemblance to his dead sister, introduces himself and relates an anecdote about the sweltering day when his sister played Brahms’ Rhapsody while deciding whether or not to go to Toulouse, where, in 1814, Spain gained its final victory over the French troops. After the commissioner tells the woman that his sister died recently of lilac passion, a fictional disease involving the third portion of the lower intestine, he receives a telephone call from his sister, calling from the mausoleum, inviting him to the tomb where she promises to explain the true meaning of death. As he prepares to open the tomb, he becomes the 18th century officer attempting to open Dona Elvira’s coffin. He is arrested and brought before the new commissioner, played by Michel Piccoli, who appeared in the beginning of the film as an anonymous French soldier. Like old conspirators, these two gentlemen run through their plan to liberate the animals from the zoo, just as Napoleon tried to free the Spanish. It won’t matter if a few animals are killed in the process, as the life of the liberator is of more import than the continued existence of a liberated object. Bunuel cuts to a succession of close-ups on various animals which are about to be delivered out of captivity. An off-screen cry of “Down with Freedom” precedes the attack on the zoo. Artillery from the past assails the students guarding the cages. A 5-second blurred pan across time unites the present with the past, then rests on 24 seconds of an ostrich in restricted back-forth motion. As the ostrich loses focus, it is caught in a freeze frame.
To substantiate the inevitability of this climax as the logical resolution of “The Phantom of Liberty,” I will trace the development of animal motifs throughout the picture. The first animal appearance is the close up of the mounted spider accompanied by the comment, “I am fed up with symmetry.” That night, the same man is disturbed by the intrusion of a rooster and an ostrich into his bedroom. When an armored command searches for foxes where foxes are not usually found, it is safe to assume that they are hunting down escapees from the zoo. Later, a stuffed fox is pictured in conjunction with Spanish music, drawing a parallel between animal liberation and Napoleon’s attempted liberation of Spain. The next mention of animals comes from the sniper. Like the French at Toledo, he selects his victims at random. His killing of the pigeon while getting even with the people who mistrust animals is indicative of the commissioner’s statement that it doesn’t matter if some animals are killed in the process of their liberation. There is no further reference to animals until the series of close-ups preceding the final exchange of glances between the viewer and the ostrich.