Time has not been kind to Luis Buñuel’s penultimate feature “The Phantom of Liberty.” Hailed with intense critical hosannas when first released in 1974 (20th Century Fox brought it to commercial U.S. success), the film virtually disappeared since its theatrical run and it has long been absent from most critical appreciations of the Buñuel canon. After a long period out of sight, “The Phantom of Liberty” is returning with a handsome new 35mm print. Unfortunately, it would seem that retrieving this particular film from years in oblivion was not the best idea.
The title for “The Phantom of Liberty” is an obscure allusion to Karl Marx and has nothing to do with either the celebrated statue or Lon Chaney. It also has nothing to do with the film itself, which is basically a plotless stream of non-sequitur humor which plumbs Buñuel’s trademark surrealist imagery for provocative and profane comedy. Some of the scenes in “The Phantom of Liberty” are jolting and hilarious (a quartet of monks playing poker while using religious medals for chips, the guests at a party where toilets are used in place of chairs around a table), but there is also an equal amount of icky sequences which have no humor or irony whatsoever (a young man in an erotic relation with his elderly aunt, a sniper who guns down dozens of people and is sentenced to death but inexplicably walks free into a throng of autograph seekers).
Even worse, there are a few sequences where the whole point of being is steamrolled in a lazy concept and dreary execution (a police academy class where the instructor babbles endlessly on Margaret Mead’s studies in the Pacific, the report of a missing child who is literally standing before the adults concerned about the news of her disappearance). Even more surprising are lame jokey episodes which feel like third-rate vaudeville (a callous doctor informs his patient of the presence of cancer and then blithely offers him a cigarette). At times “The Phantom of Liberty” feels like an overgrown and smutty version of “Laugh-In” that mixes shtick and satire in a rat-a-tat-tat method that splatters all over the screen. The film’s hit-or-miss nature ultimately dilutes audience patience and only the most dedicated Buñuel should even consider to seek this out.
Of trivial note here: several stars of 1970s European cinema turn up in silly cameo appearances (Monica Vitti as a mother who is disgusted to discover her daughter was given tourist postcards by a stranger, Michel Piccoli as a police commissioner who plans to squash a riot with the aid of a doppelganger), and Buñuel himself can be spotted in the opening 19th century historic sequence as a monk executed by Napoleon’s firing squad. Strangely, the best performances in the film belong to birds: a rooster and an emu who inexplicably wander through the bedroom of an insomniac and an ostrich who is featured in a tight close-up during the final scene when an off-screen riot takes place in a zoo. Of course, this is not to say that “The Phantom of Liberty” is strictly for the birds…though in keeping with avian puns, one must acknowledge this is the rare Buñuel film that truly lays an egg.