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The Phantom of Liberty: The Criterion Collection

Filmmaker Luis Buñuel reportedly claimed that the title The Phantom of Liberty (1974) was inspired by the first line of "The Communist Manifesto" — roughly translated as "A phantom travels over Europe … " — but the line is also used in his earlier film The Milky Way (1969). In that movie, a Jansenist dueling with a Jesuit cracks wise with a lecture on freedom of 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." In fact, the illusory nature of freedom, the idea that freedom is a ghost-like concept that men forever try to own but cannot quite grasp, is a recurring theme in the director's work; The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel's penultimate film, explores this idea the most directly. Or at least as directly as anecdotal surrealism will allow. The movie opens on a painting by Goya, "The Third of May," depicting Spanish patriots being executed by Napoleon's army in 1808, after which Buñuel presents a live-action version. Four prisoners are led out and shot, but before one dies he shouts "Vivan las Caenas!" The cry, which means "long live chains," was the phrase used by the Spanish in the face of the invading French to say that they preferred to remain under the rule of the Bourbons than to be "liberated" by Napoleon's army. Throughout the rest of Buñuel's film, which is essentially a series of existential skits interconnected by the above-mentioned theme, the elusive phantom quality of freedom and man's odd relationship to it are questioned and explored — dozens of characters come and go in this surrealist masterwork, each sketch picking up where the last left off and playing out in unexpected ways. If this is an inadequate plot description, there's little hope for better — trying to describe Buñuel's surrealist films is as difficult as grasping that phantom freedom. In one section, attention-challenged police officers get a lecture from a schoolteacher on "law and crime," to which they pay no attention. In another, a young girl is passed some photos by a creepy man in the park, which later inspire lust and revulsion in her parents; the pictures turn out to be postcards of European architectural sites and the little girl asks to trade them for pictures of spiders. In a busy boarding house, a group of monks pray for the health of a nightgown-clad woman's father; then they all sit down to smoke cigarettes and play poker, using religious medals for chips, followed by a young man checking in with a much older woman for an assignation, which goes in very bizarre directions. A very funny film, The Phantom of Liberty was one of Buñuel's own favorites, and it remains one of the most genuinely entertaining surrealist pictures from the master of the form.

Criterion's DVD offers a typically marvelous anamorphic transfer (1.66:1), newly restored in high-definition with clear DD 1.0 audio (French with optional English subtitles). Extras are slim — an introduction by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (recorded in 2000) explains that, after the commercial success of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), the pair were given free rein to do whatever they liked — so they decided to make a film that discarded all conventions of storytelling, "leaving a story when it apparently becomes interesting to go to another story which is apparently less interesting than the one we are leaving," while choosing deliberately ambiguous, contradictory storylines. Also included are a composite interview with Buñuel, compiled between 1975 and 1977, the original theatrical trailer, and a 32-page booklet containing an essay on the film by critic Gary Indiana. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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