How many times have you seen one of these scenarios in a movie?
A child goes missing, prompting a tense police investigation.
A sniper takes up a position at a high window.
A middle-class dinner party reveals bourgeois hypocrisies.
Here’s how Buñuel does them:
The child is present throughout the drama, helpfully providing a description of herself for the benefit of the officer heading the investigation.
The sniper is tried, sentenced to death and then blithely walks out of the courtroom to applause and public adulation, shaking hands and signing autographs.
The guests sit on toilets around a plush table; occasionally excusing themselves to small, private cubicles where they hungrily but guiltily eat.
It would be easy to describe ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ as episodic; little more than a collection of sketches (an aesthetic enhanced by more than one visual punchline that feels like it’s wandered in from a Monty Python episode). But it’s actually a masterclass in structure. I’m tempted to invoke Robert Altman here – the Robert Altman of ‘Nashville’ and ‘Short Cuts’ – but whereas Altman’s brilliantly juggled ensemble pieces actually resolve most of the stories, Buñuel takes delight in diversions and digressions, following his protagonists into a scene and establishing a dynamic to that scene (a man goes to see his doctor; will the diagnosis be serious?) only to transfer his attention to a subsidiary character (a nurse interrupts the consultation to ask permission to leave; a family crisis has occurred) who then exits the scene and becomes the focus of next sequence (the nurse is unable to continue her journey due to bad weather and stops at a country inn) where the narrative is then shaped by other characters (a group of monks; a gregarious middle class couple whose social interests including entertaining strangers and indulging a little SM).
The genius of ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ is that these narrative digressions never seem random. The film unfolds as if obeying some elusive internal logic. Buñuel skewers genre conventions, avoids a narrative through-line and sidesteps resolutions to present a film where everyone and no-one is the main character. A film where a postman and an ostrich can wander through a couple’s bedroom and the ostrich resurface at the denouement (not that Buñuel ever bothered with the denouement in the traditional sense) to give the film is most evasive yet memorable image; a film where a group of monks pray for a woman’s ill relatives then stick around to play poker with her afterwards (using religious paraphernalia in lieu of money); where a District Attorney keeps a sepulchral tryst with his dead sister, is arrested and questioned by his replacement/doppelgänger/alter ego (you decide) after which the two men join forces to tackle an uprising at a zoo.
A flight of imaginative satire; a thumbed nose to convention, conformism and social/religious hypocrisy – ‘The Phantom of Liberty’ is Buñuel at his most Buñuelian.