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Albert Serra’s Liberté, or Liberty, is a gruesome midsummer night’s dream of Sadeian horror in which a bunch of verbose bewigged libertines in the 18th century gather in a dark forest in their carriages for some prototypical dogging. (The men are allowed to be old and ugly, the women not.) It is some years before the French Revolution, centuries before Viagra. This film is an ordeal that I never want to go through again, but it’s undoubtedly executed with a cerebral conviction and uncompromising seriousness that no Anglo Saxon film-maker could approach.
A group of (fictional) aristocrats, expelled from the court of Louis XVI, approach a sympathetic German nobleman, the Duc de Walchen (played by Visconti veteran Helmut Berger) for help; with his guidance they assemble one moonlit night in a forest for some uninhibited debauchery – and only that quaint word will do. Like joyless vampires, they murmur to each other their jaded, detached appreciation for the spectacles of flogging and bondage that take place in front of them, and periodically participate.
It is a carnival of amoral sensuality and violence in which a political assassination takes place, almost unnoticed. And the whole thing happens in real time, deep in the woods, to the sound of the crickets’ unceasing susurration and the shrieks, moans, slurps and whip cracks.
I very much admired Serra’s earlier film, The Death of Louis XIV, with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the dying king, and these two films do have something in common: a glacial display, a kind of tableau or pageant of physical sensation – and The Death of Louis XIV is its way close to Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade. But that film had a lot more depth, resonance and humanity than Liberté, which is more of a provocation. There is a queasy echo of Michel Foucault’s view that the Enlightenment offers only a history of rationality when what we also need is a complementary history of irrationality.
• Liberté is released on 4 December on Mubi.
Source: The Guardian
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