Down With Liberty

Film still for Down With Liberty

Luis Buñuel's films can be seen as an act of war on the conventional story, and in The Phantom of Liberty he uses narrative to refute the very idea of personal freedom, argues Michael Wood

Centenaries, like all anniversaries only more portentously, invoke stories and cycles. What used to be a date has now become a meaning. The work of Luis Buñuel is among other things a form of war on stories, cycles and meaning, and one way of celebrating 2000 as the hundredth year since his birth would be to ignore it all together. The gesture would have a certain purity, but might be hard to tell from indifference, and it doesn't appear to be the preferred option. There have been lectures and film series in France and Spain and elsewhere, there is a conference in London in September, another in New York in December.

But it does seem important to register Buñuel's suspicion of all such ceremonies of order ("the implacable social ritual", as he says in My Last Breath, speaking more generally) and a good way to do this is to look again at The Phantom of Liberty/Le Fantôme de la liberté (1974), the film in which Buñuel took the wreckage of convention to its furthest limits - the furthest for him. Here he scrambles and tears not only the practice of narrative but the very idea of human consequence, the possibility of getting logically or causally from here to there. The film looks like a sketch for Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979), which is in part a collection of beginnings of novels which interrupt each other, and it recalls much of the work of Jorge Luis Borges, notably The Garden of Forking Paths, where stories divide and subdivide into their many alternatives. But there is an internal reason for the interruptions in Calvino - a book is badly bound, the fictional reader is given the wrong book, and so on - and the diverging paths in Borges always eerily converge: what happens to you may be a punishment or a reward, but it still happens to you; there are many ways of dying, but you still die. In The Phantom of Liberty there is no reason for the narrative switches, and there is no convergence: the stories just take off and never come back, as if we lived in a world where there were repetitions and patterns and thematic echoes, but no progression of plot, a succession of passing years but no means of getting a particular date, say 22 February 1900, to return.

Buñuel described the film as "very ambitious, difficult to write and to make", and "a little frustrating" in the end. He thought it was unequal, and it's true that some of its gags - the obscene postcards which turn out to be pictures of the Arc de Triomphe and the Sacré Coeur; the dinner party where the guests sit around the table on individual toilets and perform and flush during their conversation, but have to go to a little room to have their meal - now seem a little slow-moving, better talked about than actually seen. But Buñuel also said it was one of his films that he liked best - an extraordinary statement for him, since he ordinarily asserted, more in provocation than in false modesty, that all his films were rubbish and their director ought to be shot. The Phantom of Liberty remains very funny and very disturbing, full of threat beneath its glossy 1970s looks - full of war and soldiers and policemen and revolt, with a sniper at its centre, picking off pedestrians from the top of the Tour Montparnasse. One of the movie's best small jokes gives much of its flavour, the sense of what an obvious, substantial consequence would be, and what we are likely to get instead. A monk tells a woman whose father is gravely ill about the efficacy of a "miraculous image" of St Joseph. "It sometimes has quite unexpected effects on sick people... It happens that faith triumphs where science has failed. "For example, he says, he and his companions have just come from the chateau of the Marquise de la Pomarède, who was in very bad shape, "au plus mal". They took the image to her, prayed, and this morning, when they left - "She was cured?" the woman asks, making the obvious inference not only from the story but from the monk's interest in telling the story. "She was a bit better," the monk says. It happens that faith triumphs where science has failed, but it also happens - a lot more often, Buñuel would say - that both faith and science have pathetic victories that look like forms of defeat.

A more dramatic instance of non-consequence occurs when the sniper is caught and brought to trial. We pick up the case right at its end, as the presiding judge delivers his sentence: "In view of Articles 295, 296, 297, 302 and 304 of the Penal Code, as well as Article 12, the Court, having deliberated as the law requires, condemns Levasseur, Bernard, to the penalty of death." The sniper shrugs. The court is dismissed, a policeman takes the sniper's handcuffs off, and congratulates him. The lawyers come over and do the same. One of them gives him a cigarette. The sniper picks up his coat, and steps out into the enthusiastic crowd, a free man. So this is what a sentence of death means. For other people liberty may be a phantom, but for this fellow proven guilt means fame and release. The scene makes us wonder whether we've been following, whether we heard the words or read the subtitles right, and not only suggests an absurdist world of reversals, a place more like Lewis Carroll's Wonderland than Georges Simenon's Paris, but points us, once the gag has settled in our minds, to the non sequiturs of the world we live in - not usually as violent as this, but not much closer to logic either.

We make sense of the world through stories - that is, sequences made to look like consequences. Buñuel doesn't object to the stories or the sense, only to our forgetting the frequent extravagance of the making. The structuring principle of The Phantom of Liberty is a kind of chain: we start inside a story and leave it to follow one of its minor characters, who now becomes the major character in the next story, but is abandoned when the film pursues another minor character, and so on. Susan Suleiman counts 12 such stories in the film; Linda Williams, making the divisions differently, counts eight. An example, far from complete: a man goes to see his doctor; the consultation is interrupted by the receptionist, whose father is ill (she is the woman the monk tries to persuade of the virtues of St Joseph). She is given permission to leave and the film follows her - we hear no more of the first man and his consultation. She gets into her car and drives off, but the road is blocked, and she has to stay the night at an inn. After a long night of praying and playing poker with the monks (they use religious medallions and scapularies for money: "Virgins are ten, and Sacred Hearts are 25, right?"), she leaves and gives a lift to a professor who is about to go and lecture at a police academy in Argenton. The film now follows the professor rather than the nurse, and when his lecture ends (after many interruptions), we trail two policemen in his class as they go on traffic duty, and then take off after the man they stop for speeding, who goes to see his doctor. And so on.

Basic storytelling conventions are being overturned here - and highlighted because overturned. We assume that stories which are started will also end, that narrative promises will be kept. But how many facts do you have to bend, how many facets do you have to neglect, to keep such promises? What are we to do with our disappointed appetite for plot, our raised and unfed expectations? We assume that stories have central characters and that we will stay with them. But why have we chosen these characters as central, or had them chosen for us? What's the nature of the hierarchy here? It seems democratic to give the minor characters their story, but then it seems anarchic to abandon them in their turn, as if the principle is not political or social but just a devotion to randomness. And can a writer or a film-maker do anything except simulate randomness? Isn't this more dubious than simulating order?

In spite of the talk of chance in the film, and the appearance of chance in the sequence of events, I don't think Buñuel's real interest is randomness so much as the feelings the threat of randomness raises. A storyteller makes choices, takes forks in the road, promotes some characters to centrality, leaves others on the margins. But he or she does this with a purpose; the choices may or may not be justified, but they are always in theory justifiable, subordinate to a goal or an effect. What if you had no purpose, or didn't believe in purpose? You wouldn't tell stories. What if you wanted to suggest that purposes are fictional most of the time, the delusional result of stories rather than their grounding? Or if you just didn't know how fictional they were, and wanted to know what an anarchy of story would look like? You could write and then film The Phantom of Liberty.

Of course there are coherences in the movie, if not at the level of story. But we shouldn't rush to insist on them, as if they would redeem the apparent disorder and get us back on track. They also are about disorder; they enact and picture it. The film opens on a reproduction of a painting by Goya, showing Spanish patriots being executed by Napoleon's army in May 1808. Buñuel then puts the scene on film. In a gloomy half-light, four prisoners are led out and shot. They are played by Buñuel's doctor friend José-Luis Barros, handsome, white-shirted, the echo of the central figure in the Goya painting; by José Bergamin, a Spanish poet and another friend of Buñuel's; by the film's producer Serge Silberman; and by Buñuel himself, as a monk. Before he dies, Barros steps slightly forward and shouts an enigmatic, historical phrase: "Vivan las caenas", an idiomatic pronunciation of "Vivan las cadenas", Long live chains. A French subtitle translates the cry as "A bas la liberté". It is repeated by voices off screen, and is heard again at the end of the movie, when the Paris police are dealing forcefully with a student attempt to liberate the animals in the zoo - Buñuel's glance at 1968. A copy of the Goya painting itself appears a little earlier in the office of the Prefect of Police.

The cry is usually felt to be a trifle puzzling, but then easily enough absorbed into the general picture of Buñuel the libertarian. If he has someone say "Long live chains", the character must just mean he prefers his own version of liberty to someone else's. But this is to miss Buñuel's taste for paradox, his genuine despair about human dreams of liberty, and the force of the title of the movie. He meant, Buñuel says, to hint at the opening of The Communist Manifesto and its spectre haunting Europe, and he took the actual phrase from his own film The Milky Way/La Voie lactée (1968), where a Jansenist duelling (literally) with a Jesuit delivers a bit of doctrine about the freedom of the will: "I experience in every event that my thoughts and my will are not in my power. And that my liberty is only a phantom." Buñuel is inclined to believe that all freedoms are "illusory", as he says in My Last Breath. He would add that this is not a reason for not seeking them.

"Long live chains" means long live chains. It was the cry of the Spanish, who in the face of Napoleon's occupation of their country preferred, or claimed to prefer, the dreadful reactionary rule of the Bourbons to the liberal ideas of their revolutionary neighbours. Nationalist loyalties simply override international ideas. Well, not so simply if we imagine Spanish liberals making the cry, as they did. They preferred Napoleon's ideas to those of the Bourbons, but in the crunch they preferred bad Spanish ideas to good French ones: a heroic and perverse choice of unfreedom, and an instance of why liberty often remains so spectral. The French subtitle in the film makes the point even clearer, since what is being rejected is part of the revolutionary trinity, so that the Spanish prisoners seem to be refusing, in the name of the nation, the modern world itself.

Who raises the cry at the end of the film? Whose are those voices in the soundtrack? It's hard to imagine the French students calling out "Long live chains", even ironically, and presumably the police are too busy at their work of repression. No, the people shouting at the end have to be the same as those who were shouting at the beginning, a memory and an echo. We can readily be, as the time travel of the film has already suggested, in several places at once. We are in France in 1968 (or thereabouts) and in Spain in 1808, the cries of one country sound forcefully in another, the politics of both comment on each. And there is in any case another character in the film who would say "Long live chains" if he/she could. After a long pan through the zoo, so fast that everything goes out of focus, we end up on a tight close-up of an ostrich. The soundtrack is full of noise, the ostrich looks bug-eyed and baffled (like the central figure in the Goya painting, Linda Williams says), moves its head in a couple of swift jerks, finally stares straight at us. The movie ends. It would be great to be out in the wild, the ostrich image says. But better to be in a cage than loose on the streets of Paris.

The ragged story-line of The Phantom of Liberty and its disorderly pattern of recurring images, especially of animals, suggest that both narrative and society are versions of captivity, historical and cultural zoos. The double question posed by the film is both highly contemporary and a lot more than a hundred years old. Do we really want to get out, and why did we build the zoo?

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012