When I think of the quintessential Luis Bunuel sequence I keep coming back to one of the many failed dinners across The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The cast sits down to a perfectly set table and before they can start eating a curtain rises and reveals that they are sitting on a theater stage complete with a live audience. Some scurry off the stage immediately. Others acting under the same impulse to save face try to deliver their dialog while the audience laughs and guffaws. Eventually they run off too in embarrassment. But that’s what makes a Bunuel film so special relative to other filmmakers who are pigeonholed as “weird”. His characters belong to a social order and act in ways that convey their status and privilege. When the director throws them a curve and alters the physics of their world they seek to maintain their class and customs. Some even manage to function perfectly well under absurd circumstances.
“Phantom of Liberty” is Bunuel’s second to last feature. It’s sandwiched between Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, but unlike those films it does not have a clear central conceit (i.e. “no one gets to eat!” of Bourgeoisie, and ‘the female lead is played by two actresses’ of Desire). Despite this Phantom operates with hearty momentum. It certainly has more raison d'etre than Desire.
Like much of Bunuel’s work his target is modern society which he traces back to the Napoleonic “liberation” of Spain. Freedom there was delivered at the barrels of firing squads while the victims shouted “down with liberty” as their last words. Amidst the blood and the gore one of the French officers becomes infatuated with a deceased noblewomen, caressing a statue of her likeness lewdly. He’s interrupted by the statue of her husband who smites the officer for his insolence. Swearing revenge, the officer exhumes the noblewoman discovering that her beauty was spared by death.
The film jumps to present day Spain and follows various characters on a Northern trek, back to France. On the way many of Bunuel’s favorite targets are mercilessly skewered. Priests transition immediately from servants of the lord to cigarette smoking gamblers. A man stalks young girls and gives them illicit pictures of architecture.
The “invisible child” trope is familiar enough in television and in film, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Incredibles, but only Bunuel could show this as an act of the parent’s will. The parents march to the police station to report their daughter missing, and bring her along. It’s a good thing too since the police captain is able to get a fairly good description from looking at her.
There’s an extended sequence where a lone gunman kills a half dozen innocents. He is apprehended offscreen. Bunuel married his growing fear of terrorism to his disgust at how monsters are embraced in society. The toothless judiciary sentences the shooter to death, but afterwards he walks out of the courthouse a free man. Enjoying a cigarette while people approach him for an autograph.