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THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Andriana Asti, Julien Bertheau, Jean Rochefort
Director:  Luis Bunuel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Video Introduction, Trailer
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  May 24, 2005

"I'm sick of symmetry."

Film ***

The Phantom of Liberty is a comic game of hopscotch through surrealism and social satire.  It was Luis Bunuel's second to last film, and while it may pale slightly in comparison to the movies that bookended it The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, it's nevertheless a fascinating and frequently funny look at life through dream colored glasses.

There's no plot sketch to take you from point A to point B...rather, it's a series of stories that have little to no connection to one another, many of which are abandoned at key points of interest in favor of something new and different.  Bunuel may have been challenging his audience's attention by constantly pulling the rug out from under them, but he's one of the few directors who could successfully pull off such a juggling act.

For example, the picture opens with the forces of Napoleon in Spain...restless soldiers are plundering an old Catholic church, where one of them discovers the chalice of communion wafers and munches on them like a halftime snack.  Then we see the story is being told by a modern French woman, which segues into a story of a little girl being given some pictures by a stranger, which eventually shocks her parents...though not for the reasons you might be thinking.

Then there are other memorable bits along the way...an insomniac who actually receives a letter in a dream, a woman at an inn who prays with some monks for her father's health, then joins them in a poker game where religious medals are used instead of chips, a sniper who gets a death sentence but inexplicably walks free from the courtroom into crowds of autograph seekers, a bizarre affair between an aunt and her nephew, and a strange off-camera massacre at a zoo.

The running theme seems to be turning moral convention on its head...one of the most striking sequences completely reverses what we do publicly and privately by showing a gathering at a table where everyone is seated on toilets, presumably doing their business.  One man goes off to a small private room to have some food.  "Occupied!" he calls out when someone knocks on the door.

But perhaps the most remembered sequence is that of two parents trying to find their missing little girl who is right there with them all the time...the police even size her up for a description as she obligingly cooperates.  Sometimes parents don't notice what's going on in their kids' lives, but Bunuel takes it to a strange and amusing new level.

Luis Bunuel and David Lynch are two of cinema's most prolific surrealists, though the latter uses his style mostly to unsettle, while Bunuel sees comedy in the absurd.  He rarely offers simple, sane explanations for what he has to show us, whether itís the crowd that always sits down to dinner but never eats in Discreet Charm, or the fact that two different actresses exchange playing the same role in Obscure Object. 

The Phantom Liberty is the great director's most unbridled statement since Un Chein Andalou...it won't please all audiences, but dedicated cineastes will find much to delight in.

Video ***1/2

This anamorphic offering from Criterion is mostly striking in detail and color...it's certainly held up well for a 30 year old film.  Only a few darker moments show some grain and a bit of aging residue on the print, but for the most part, the tones leap off the screen, and the lines are crisp and clear with nothing interfering with the viewing pleasure.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack seems generally clean and clear, with French dialogue coming across in good shape.  Not a lot of dynamic range or music at play, so the overall effect is listenable but not particularly potent.

Features *

Included on the disc are the original trailer and a new video introduction by co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere.  There is also a nice booklet with a new essay and a reprinted interview with Bunuel.

Summary:

I'm glad Criterion is the studio that continues to deliver the important films of Luis Bunuel to DVD.  The Phantom Liberty is another great example of how the surrealist director was really coming into a new prime at the end of his career.

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