Backlog #15: The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

Asseyez-Vous. This is a bewildering movie. Its setting is contemporary seventies France (both urban and provincial) and its characters are bourgeois and official types. The basic plot scenarios are very mundane: going to bed, visiting a sick relative, giving a lecture, children playing in the park, a family meal, seeing your doctor, staying at a hotel. What we would take for granted in acting out the course of our lives.

The Phantom of Liberty applies the subversion of surreality to these situations: a man is told he is terminally ill and responds by attacking the doctor. Shortly afterwards he is informed by the prefect that his daughter, who is sat to his (oblivious) right, has been kidnapped. Earlier on, a lecture in a police academy leads into a scene where a family shits communally at the dinner table and eats their meals alone in the bathroom.

The hypocrisies under attack here are typically religious and those of officialdom. There is a lot of sex too: taboos are broken in the most innocuous manner. The Phantom of Liberty says that the society we take for granted is a surface of cracked plaster and we have responsibility for our truths and morals.

Although the structure, linear but non-linear, where each episodic situation leads on, through the thin thread of another character appearing within and taking the plot with them into another sequence, does not satisfy our notions of strong plot and characterisation; each chapter does not resolve anything, but just dissolves into the next. The character that has dominated our perception for the previous ten minutes becomes ephemera.

We take delight in the normality contrasted with the mad, the innocuousness of it all. The Phantom of Liberty is a superb film.


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