Luis Buñuel's films were often compared to dreams, but his 1974 social comedy The Phantom Of Liberty is more like a fitful nap. In one scene, a bourgeois husband and father (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) wakes up every hour to find a strange new visitor in his bedroom: a rooster, then later an ostrich, and at one point, a bicycling postman delivering a letter. In another sequence, nurse Milena Vukotic stops at an inn, but before she can get into bed, monks enter her room and offer her religious relics. Then they play poker. Then a sadomasochist couple shows up and puts on a sex show. Nobody gets any sleep. Meanwhile, in the room next to the whippers and card-players, a young man is reminiscing with his elderly aunt about the wonderful times they had together when he was a boy. He caresses her hands tenderly and romantically, then over her objections, he pulls back the covers of the bed she's lying in, revealing a surprisingly well-preserved naked body. Again, nobody sleeps.
The Phantom Of Liberty finds Buñuel at his most playful, stringing together bizarre, shocking, and scandalous gags. Statues come to life, murderers are cheerfully set free, tank drivers go on fox hunts, parents take their daughter to the bureau of missing persons and ask them to find her... madness reigns. The film's title may hint at what the plotless roundelay is about, or it may be another fake-out, designed only to imply a deeper meaning to all this eroticized scatology. The Phantom Of Liberty is stacked with puckish inversions, and is best remembered for one of Buñuel's most perverse dinner scenes, where people sit on toilets and complain about how less civilized cultures are rank with the stench of food.
Throughout, Buñuel deploys the fluid camerawork and relaxed pace that distinguished his final decade of filmmaking. His was a cinema of images substantially different than most; for Buñuel, the pictures in his head mattered more than whether they fit together into a narrative, let alone a cohesive statement. The only real problem with The Phantom Of Libertyand with a lot of Buñuel, truth be toldis that its style has been swiped too often by filmmakers with more of a plan, from arthouse auteurs like Roy Andersson (Songs From The Second Floor) to absurdist comedians like Monty Python's Flying Circus. By contrast, Buñuel's films seem like they should be funnier and clearer. Instead, he purposefully dried them out, making them slacker, straighter, and sometimes deadly silent. The Phantom Of Liberty begins in the Napoleonic era with rebels howling "Down with liberty!" and climaxes with a montage of random deaths, but Buñuel's petty dramatic sensibility is described best by Brialy, who petulantly grumbles, "I'm sick of symmetry."