The Phantom of Liberty
Luis Buñuel’s vision of the inherent absurdity of human social rituals reaches its taboo-annihilating extreme in what may be his most morally subversive and formally audacious work. Zigzagging across time and space, from the Napoleonic era to the present day, The Phantom of Liberty unfolds as a picaresque, its main character traveling between tableaux in a series of Dadaist non sequiturs. Unbound by the laws of narrative logic, Buñuel lets his surrealist’s id run riot in an exuberant revolt against bourgeois rationality that seems telegraphed directly from his unconscious to the screen.
Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty receives a Blu-ray upgrade from The Criterion Collection, the film presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The disc is available exclusively in the box set Three Films by Luis Buñuel.
Like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (also found in the set), Criterion appears to be reusing the same high-def master they used for their previous DVD edition, which was released in 2005. This was disheartening at first as the DVD’s presentation was pretty meh but the high-def upgrade has managed to do some wonders with it. The DVD had a sickly green tint to everything that seemed to darken the image and crush out the blacks to a degree, and though that green tint is still there the image, overall, is far brighter, the black levels also managing to come off a little bit better, if still murky in a few shots (sequences that take place in the inn specifically). Compression is less of an issue here as well, though film grain, while there, never looks all that strong, having more of a patchy, minor digital look. Details are far stronger at the very least, with some of the finer ones coming through clearer.
Further restoration has been done and most of the bits of debris and marks that were present on the DVD's presentation are now mostly gone, only a few scratches and such remaining. Outside of the patchy grain that is present, artifacts aren’t a real concern other than some minor shimmers with tighter patterns, though Discreet Charm was worse in this regard. Overall, the film could still use a new scan and restoration, but the high-def upgrade does manage to deliver a notable improvement over the old DVD.
The film’s French monaural soundtrack is presented here in lossless PCM. Nothing stands out really: dialogue and effects sound clear, but it’s all very one-note and flat. Damage isn’t an issue, though, and the track is clean.
Criterion’s DVD was an enormous disappointment, only containing one substantial supplement outside of the film’s trailer (which is also found here), which has been ported over: an interview with writer Jean-Claude Carriere that didn’t even run 5-minutes, with a minute of it devoted to clips from the film.
Taken from a longer interview (the bulk of which showed up on Criterion’s release for That Obscure Object of Desire) Carriere simply goes over the basic premise of the film and his (and Buñuel’s) favourite section: the “missing” girl. While an okay introduction the film itself really screamed for more and Criterion thankfully remedies this, to a degree anyway. The one notable academic inclusion is a 20-minute discussion with Peter William Evans, recorded in 2017, around the film, its structure, the influences for the various segments, and how the title of the film and “liberty” play into them. It will help newcomers to the film (especially newcomers to Buñuel) but it’s disappointingly dry. A visual essay would have probably been more desirable.
Criterion also digs up a couple of archival interviews: a 5-minute excerpt from the television program Pour le cinema featuring Michel Piccoli and Jean-Claude Brialy, and another 7-minute excerpt featuring just Brialy for the program Le dernier des cinq. For the first excerpt the two actors (filmed separately) talk about the script (Piccoli saying it read like it was written by a young man) and working with Buñuel, while the second has Brialy expand a bit on his character, working with Monica Vitti (much to his delight) and how the filmmaker pushed the two of them to play their sex-crazed characters straight. They’re both short but manage to offer some insight into Buñuel’s working method and his sense of humour.
To represent producer Serge Silberman (who produced the three films in the box set this release is featured in, which includes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) Criterion then includes the 31-minute profile on the man, The Producers: Serge Silberman, made around the time he was working on Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. The profile looks at his early beginnings, which included working with Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker, before he was able to land Buñuel, whom he was thrilled to be working with (Silberman recalls thinking Buñuel would laugh at the idea of working with a “nobody” like him). It’s a great little profile that also includes a fascinating conversation between him and Carriere around how to properly distribute arthouse films, doing a slower rollout to build up the film’s reputation, a technique still done today.
Though more academic material would still be welcome, this release offers a far more satisfying collection of material over Criterion’s previous might-as-well-be-barebones DVD edition.
The film could still use a new scan and restoration, and I’m still a bit shocked it hasn’t received one. At the very least, the Blu-ray does offer a better presentation over Criterion’s disappointing DVD edition while also providing more supplemental material.