Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled For a 2-hour orgy of SM and severed limbs, emLiberté /emis pretty tedious
Photo: Cinema Guild

In the year 1774, some time before the French Revolution, a group of aristocratic libertines exiled from the court of Louis XVI gather in a secluded patch of forest for an extended night of no-holds-barred sexual debauchery. So begins Liberté, a film that, over the course of its languorous runtime, makes room for scenes of rimming, piss-play, and a bit of S&M action involving a fire poker and an amputated arm. Since its premiere last year in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize, the film has been hailed as a “radical” and “subversive” addition to Catalan director Albert Serra’s notoriously challenging filmography. And on paper, this certainly sounds like a compelling provocation—at the very least, it’s the most meticulously art-directed two-hour orgy you’re likely to see this year. But what Liberté also illustrates, only too well, is how something that might once have been daring can now feel de rigueur

Advertisement

Granted, it’s not as if there are now a slew of sexually explicit cinematic nocturnes set in historically significant periods of transition. With the exception of two brief passages, Liberté unfolds entirely under the cover of night, cloaking much of its action in sepulchral shadow; from this year, only Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela comes close in terms of sheer visual darkness. And like Serra’s previous films, Liberté grounds itself in conceptually fertile territory, raising the twinned matters of perversion and freedom in a time when individual bodily autonomy beyond the king’s domain—limited only by the imagination and the availability of consenting bodies—was still a genuinely transgressive notion. In a way, it’s a natural follow-up to Serra’s previous feature, The Death Of Louis XIV, which observed the Sun King’s divine right to power embodied by the decaying body of French icon Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Advertisement

Despite their ostensibly hefty themes, though, Serra’s films are often less notable for their ideological specificity than for their physical, corporeal depictions. This has resulted in poseurish work—like 2013’s Story Of My Death, with its Dracula-meets-Casanova hook—that seems designed to be written about more than actually watched. Liberté, with its carnal fixations and figurations, might seem like an ideal fit for Serra’s talents. Following a relatively brief scene-setting monologue, the film gets on with its main project: crafting a dense matrix of sexual desire between its dozen or so participants (played by a mix of professional and amateur actors). The bulk of its runtime is composed of the libertines’ furtive glances, measured movements, and cries of pleasure and/or pain—all captured by Serra in a series of stately, crepuscular tableaux and a dense soundscape of nocturnal activity.

It should be said, however, that for all of its sexual explicitness—a number of grotesquely engorged penises, nude women in various states of bondage—Liberté doesn’t seem primarily intent on shocking the viewer. Surely familiar with what critic James Quandt dubbed the “New French Extremity,” a term pegged to the early-2000s work of Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, and others, Serra isn’t out to one-up those directors or their imitators. Rather, he’s more interested in fusing his period-piece perversions with a kind of arthouse minimalism: a preference for slight but temporally unified scenarios, limited camera movements, and protracted scenes of repetitive action. (The similarly titled 2001 film La Libertad, from Argentine director Lisandro Alonso—who was on the Cannes jury that awarded Serra—serves as a useful point of reference.) These aesthetic choices give Liberté a general air of remoteness—which is as it should be, given our distance from 18th-century taboos and the subsequent shifts in socially permissible behavior (not to mention the range of sexually explicit material readily available online). The viewer’s historical awareness having been duly foregrounded, though, one might still ask what sort of freedom Serra is trying to explore beyond this starting point.

Illustration for article titled For a 2-hour orgy of SM and severed limbs, emLiberté /emis pretty tedious
Photo: Cinema Guild

One possible answer might be found in his engagement with other artistic media. In 2015, Serra presented a five-screen installation called Singularity in the Venice Biennale; his 2016 feature The Death Of Louis XIV gave rise to a live installation performance, and then a subsequent feature (Roi Soleil) made from that performance. And before it premiered at Cannes, Liberté had two previous incarnations: first as a theater production in Berlin, then as a two-channel video installation, with a pair of screens set at opposite ends of a long hall. A natural response to the aforementioned question would be to say that Serra is dissolving the boundaries between the gallery, the stage, and the movie theater. But it might be more accurate to say that, in stepping between these spaces, he’s highlighting what he’s not free to take with him. The gallery installation (titled Personalien) uses much of the same footage as Liberté, which may account for why the film doesn’t have characters so much as figures: Despite the presence of queer icon Helmut Berger (best known for his role in Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig) as the German Duc de Walchen, Serra’s cast of pleasure-seekers remains largely undifferentiated and interchangeable—the better to emphasize the democratic nature of their desires. But no matter how much narrative detail or characterization he pares away from his basic scenario, Serra can’t change the fundamental facts of a movie presentation: a single screen in a select space with an audience in attendance.

Advertisement

What he can do is make the viewer acutely aware of whatever space they’re in. Whether or not Liberté’s action counts as pornographic is up for debate (and likely depends on the predilections of each viewer). But taken as a whole, the film might be said to recapture something of the largely defunct experience of collective, public viewings of pornography. Not in terms of visual content—Serra’s images are probably too lush to compare to scuzzy vintage porn—but in the potential audience’s shared sense of curiosity, embarrassment, and excitement in whatever is happening before them. Watching Liberté, we might wonder why the figures on screen are subjecting themselves to all manner of physical extremes in their quest for satisfaction; but then, we might also wonder why we’ve chosen to watch them do so, and maybe even glance at our neighbors to see how they’re responding. (With home viewings, which are for now the only option, the analogous experience is that of internet pornography, where the implicit question is why, given a multitude of other choices, one has chosen to watch this particular film.) This is all to say that Liberté comes closest to success when it doesn’t just create a coherent progression of delectation and desire, but, in the modernist tradition, also invites the viewer to move into and out of that flow.

It doesn’t quite get there. A striking storm scene midway through, centered around a strapping valet, achieves an ideal balance of sensual involvement and spectatorial alienation; and Liberté’s closing image, of spotlights coming up on the main forest setting, as in a curtain call, elegantly expresses the kind of dissociative, push-pull awareness that Serra wants to create. For the most part, though, Liberté is a drearily alienating experience; Serra’s depictions are characterized mainly by studied grotesquerie and tedious monotony. Apparently averse to aesthetic variation or surprise, the film falls into an all-too-recognizable pattern of desire and disappointment: Its libertines dream of fulfillment but fail to achieve it. Still, it should be said that Serra, like his exiled aristocrats, has set a high bar for himself in his pursuit of (artistic) freedom: “No one quite understands the vision we are defending,” declares one man early on. And so, even if Liberté ultimately represents a failure of imagination, it may be worth engaging with—or submitting to—all the same.

Advertisement

Share This Story

Get our newsletter