Truth and Movies

Liberté

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Albert Serra

Starring

Helmut Berger Iliana Zabeth Marc Susini

Anticipation.

Bombed at Cannes, but that’s its own strange endorsement.

Enjoyment.

Beguiling treatise on voyeurism and revolution. More to it than just costumed dogging.

In Retrospect.

An exceptional, completely unique film, though like public orgies, definitely not for everyone.

A group of exiled libertines engage in a moonlit orgy in director Albert Serra’s puckish historical romp.

Describing a film that, from the outset, doesn’t appear to be a comedy, as a comedy, is a method sometimes used by critics as a form of deflection. Comedy tends to be primal and instinctual, maybe even a bit throwaway, and so to use it as a descriptor in this way serves to eliminate both a film’s complexities and your own need to take that film at its purported face value.

To give an example, in 1997, at a screening of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, most of the patrons chose to laugh their way through some of the film’s most gruelling sequences, using comedy as a way to offset the potential for trauma.

Albert Serra’s Liberté was widely lambasted when it screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival for its extended duration and lack of a storyline, as it presented a fleshy coterie of bewigged 18th-century French dandies skulking around a moonlit woodland clearing while engaging in all manner of erotic tomfoolery. Having been ejected from the court of King Louis XVI for their foul predilections, this clandestine collective decide instead to enact their own private revolution – just ahead of the one on the horizon that resulted in the king’s sudden head loss via guillotine.

About an hour in, it seems clear that Serra is joking with his audience, placing us in the uncomfortable position of being unwilling voyeurs (among others on screen with frilly blousons and handy telescopes) to these miniature episodes of unbridled libertinism. But then maybe it’s not so uncomfortable, as isn’t this what film watching is all about? That is, being asked to observe people from a safe distance while they synthesise and offload naked emotions for the camera. Is all cinemagoing not just tacit participation in a scrubland orgy?

If you think about it, that’s pretty funny. There’s a sequence in which one nobleman is being repeatedly caned on his derriere while another man watches excitedly, and it goes on for so long that you pass through the looking glass of pure horror and into the realms of absurdist comedy. Each scream translates as an equal fusion of pleasure and pain. But which side to fall on?

Liberté is not a comedy that evokes belly laughter, but one that elicits coiled amusement at the idea of the microdramas that arise from such a situation. Serra managed a similar tonal balancing act in his previous film, The Death of Louis XIV, in which it was hard not to titter as fussbudget retainers attempt to prolong the life of a desiccating regent played with deadpan aplomb by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Here though, roles are enforced, couplings are suggested and then suddenly reneged upon, complete sexual equality appears to be the rules of the game, though clear class structures remain.

It’s a fascinating, unique and affirmative film about the revolutionary act of self-expression, and the connection between backroom intellectual inquiry and broad public thinking. Serra and DoP Artur Tort film the vignettes in a manner which negates any eroticism, as they are instead interested in the logistics, the process and the unspoken transactions that are made between these consenting adults. It’s a film which could arouse outrage, or boredom, or even a strange kind of mirth, and as such it feels as if Serra may have ended up making one of the seminal midnight movies.

Published 4 Dec 2020

Tags: Albert Serra

Anticipation.

Bombed at Cannes, but that’s its own strange endorsement.

Enjoyment.

Beguiling treatise on voyeurism and revolution. More to it than just costumed dogging.

In Retrospect.

An exceptional, completely unique film, though like public orgies, definitely not for everyone.

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