At the very least, Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty is an inspired cinematic treat because it begins with Goya’s The Third of May, which should be familiar to fans of this site. Why this particular painting? Given the utter confusion and deliberate randomness of the film, there really isn’t a firm answer, but I’d like to believe that because the image represents the slaughter of innocents by tyrannical forces, it is the perfect springboard for Bunuel’s attack on the so-called reason that binds the West. As “enlightened” beings, we flatter ourselves with notions of progress, but in our hearts, we’re sadistic bullies who exploit, pillage, and murder. Still, Bunuel is far from a stern lecturer; he’s simply having too much fun for such somber indulgences.

The film itself has no particular story and events follow one another without regard for continuity, which is about the only way Bunuel could convey his vision without compromise. Using surrealism, dreams, and obscure symbolism, Bunuel can operate without restrictions; his canvas is whatever he chooses at any given time. If he wants an ostrich to wander through a bedroom, so be it. If a mailman delivers the mail to that same bedroom at 3 am, who’s to argue with the logic? Ordinarily, such baffling ideas serve to frustrate and irritate, but under Bunuel’s steady hand, we trust that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Consider the vignettes: (1) a group of monks take over a smoky hotel room — drinking, flirting, and using religious relics as poker chips (“I’ll open with a virgin”); (2) a man sits in bed, the hours pass like minutes, and a rooster proudly struts by; (3) an elderly woman romances her nephew, and when he finally relents and pulls off the sheets, her body has mysteriously transformed into that of a young woman, but not until he smacks her around and tries to suffocate her with a pillow; (4) the same monks witness an S&M ritual, featuring a gentleman who proudly wears ass-less pants; (5) a group of people sit around a dinner table while on toilets, excusing themselves only to eat their meals in privacy; (6) a young girl is reported missing, despite being present the entire time (and even being acknowledged as present by her parents); and (7) a casual sniper blows away several Parisians before being arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and allowed to walk free (meeting autograph hounds on the way out of the courtroom).


What could these events possibly mean? And why, for example, does a woman play piano in the nude and later call her brother after being reported dead? Moreover, why is there a riot at a zoo where people are heard shouting, “Down with liberty?” Before answering, also consider the following quote: “Everyone is always someone else’s barbarian.” No other statement provides a more tangible clue as to Bunuel’s guiding theme — that is: morals, rules, and laws are by their nature arbitrary (see Beyond Good & Evil, chapter 5), and even the notion of freedom (itself an artificial construction) is an illusion; a “phantom.” Bunuel has always earned his bread by attacking middle and upper class institutions, but here he indicts us all, especially for believing that we have this whole thing figured out. It’s as if to say — life can be routine, predictable, and even “controlled,” but a strange animal crossing your path has a way of throwing a blanket of chaos over the situation.

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
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