Phantom of Liberty is a film about the impossibility of escaping the tyranny of convention in politics, society, and art…. Buñuel's anarchistic vision has remained constant. Man persists in denying his animal nature and creating a civilized code of laws and manners that only heightens his absurdity and intensifies his oppression. This theme lies at the center of all Buñuel's work; he never escapes it, and neither do we, his audience.
As in earlier films, the central social ritual is the dinner party, for it offers a prime example of how civilized man copes with his basic animal needs…. Using a Swiftian ironic reversal, in Phantom Buñuel reminds us that eating and shitting are merely opposite ends of the same biological process and that our culture's decision to glorify the former and forbid all mention of the latter is totally arbitrary…. [The] power of convention prevents us from seeing that all aspects of our animal nature must be accepted.
This theme is reinforced by the recurring image of animals placed in an elegant setting. (pp. 20-1)
In Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel also explores education, potentially a source of change and freedom. The existing institutions, however, merely reinforce the status quo. (p. 22)
In the incident involving the little girl lost at school, we see that false words, once confirmed by authority and convention, have the power to contradict logic and the direct evidence of our senses. The child, like the horse-drawn cart at the mansion in L'Age d'or, is totally invisible because the adults do not expect to see her. Thus, perception and knowledge are almost totally controlled by cultural expectations. Within the school, no attention is paid to the creative potentialities of the child—individuals are named and numbered, they copy dictation and learn by rote. "Speak only when you're spoken to" and "children should be seen and not heard" are the maxims that prevail; unfortunately they lead to the invisibility of the individual child…. Ultimately, Phantom of Liberty is one gigantic circle of corruption and entrapment. As usual, Buñuel does not tell us how to escape into positive alternatives; but … he insists that a courageous and honest confrontation of things as they are is the first step to freedom. If we are to resist the dangers of our society, we must not allow our heads to be buried in the sands of convention.
In Phantom of Liberty the struggle against convention is most powerful in the realm of art…. Buñuel valiantly tries to rebel against narrative conventions, breaking through to a totally open-ended form capable of frustrating the audience's expectations. Nevertheless, the film is enclosed in a structural circularity and repeats many of the same images, themes, situations, and narrative devices that Buñuel has used before. Despite his playful experimentation, he does not completely escape artistic convention or his own subconscious. Liberty is a phantom even in the creative process.
Previously, Buñuel had explored this idea most fully both in theme and structure in The Discreet Charm. Stressing the revolutionary nature of the subconscious, this dream film uses an expansive style opening outward, which defines narrow conventions, linear design, and rational interpretation…. In this film, we can never believe what people say, nor can we predict what they will do next. The lines between dream, inset story, and bizarre incident soon break down. (p. 23)
Despite the disruptive narrative structure, in Discreet Charm we repeatedly encounter our six bourgeois characters, dressed in their modish clothes, walking down a country road that apparently goes nowhere…. These characters are puppets manipulated by Buñuel, the master dreamer, who...
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handles them as easily as the props and settings. Here he uses time to suggest that dreaming is an endless tripping; yet despite the expansive variety of the realities we may encounter along the way, there is always something terrifyingly familiar about the terrain. Despite their resilience and charm, these characters never really escape their anarchistic nature.
In Phantom of Liberty Buñuel uses the same kind of expansive, anarchistic structure, but with much greater self-reflexiveness. Personally, he recognizes that although he is an exiled artist, he cannot escape his own national heritage, which he acknowledges in the selection of Goya's paintings, highlighting French imperialism in Spain. (p. 24)
The self-reflexive nature of the film is also expressed in the way Buñuel handles the narrative structure. He seems to combine as many storytelling devices from as many different genres as possible—e.g., the narrative painting, the gothic tale, the inset story, the letter, the dream, the exemplum, the flashback, the omniscient narrator, the horizontal wipe. He creates the illusion that the artist has unlimited powers of invention and that the story has endless possibilities; he can follow any character or story line in any direction according to his will. Or, as in Discreet Charm, he can tease us with unfinished business…. Like the bourgeois gentleman who exclaims, "I'm fed up with symmetry" as he makes for a spider on his mantle, Buñuel always keeps his narrative off balance and his audience surprised by the unexpected. (pp. 24-5)
Buñuel's artistic freedom, though daring and playful, is … constrained. Although he is one of the most truly experimental and anarchistic film-makers who has ever lived, he is also one of the most consistent in expressing the same theme and rebelling against the same conventions. For almost half a century, his career has been one long pursuit of the Phantom of Liberty. (p. 25)
Marsha Kinder, "The Tyranny of Convention in 'The Phantom of Liberty'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1975 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1975, pp. 20-5.