Director: Albert Serra
Stars: Iliana Zabeth, Helmut Berger, Marc Susini
Consisting in the main of a furtive, debauched orgy in the moonlit French woods toward the end of Louis XVI’s reign – conducted by libertines expelled from his court – Albert Serra’s Liberté was largely rejected at Cannes in 2019 but has recently surfaced for UK audiences on streaming service MUBI. In the new year, it’ll received a physical release courtesy of Second Run, too. Good. While resolutely, deliberately not-for-everyone, Serra’s film and its ilk feel precious and necessary in the wake of Disney’s gluttonous announcement of utterly homogeneous content.
It opens with a prologue, of sorts, in the dying light of the day, as the scant libertines assemble in groups to discuss desires and perversions, manifesting ideas of bondage and bestiality. Preparations for a night of unbridled erotic expression are being made. Following the title card, Liberté switches to hours later and, in the murk of night, these outcast noblemen and women congregate, tentatively cruising one another in the eerie quietude. When they speak – which is not often – it is in clipped whisper. The film’s soundtrack amounts to the unending chorus of insects whose utter obliviousness to the libertines’ escapades engenders a strange kind of humour all of its own. Later in the night, a storm provides further atmospheric opportunities for Serra, as he resolutely disrobes what we think of when we imagine the prestigious, calcified period drama.
Randy European reenactments of days-gone-by are nothing new of course, as anyone who’s journeyed into the ’70s work of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Walerian Borowczyk can attest. But Serra’s piece is quite far removed from these touchstones. Though it is mildly comedic in its steely, protracted absurdism, Serra doesn’t favour the bawdy slapstick of those fore-bearers (who proved more influential on the run of Monty Python films that followed them). Instead, Serra’s horny chamber piece brings to mind the gloomy purgatories of Pedro Costa. Time feels stretched here, which is odd because Liberté seems to take place in real time once the sun goes down. Its rhythm is decidedly out of step with most of modern cinema, certainly in the West. This fealty to the actual passage of time makes it feel wholly disconnected from much of the cinematic language we commonly experience. Perhaps it is this that Liberté most keenly shares with Costa’s aesthetic?
While not exactly sinister, the mood here is anything but erotic, even as Serra’s characters grow ecstatic from whippings or strange encounters with inhuman members. Where Costa’s protagonists often feel lost or forsaken, Serra’s are truly living. Theirs is a kind of bored orgiastic defiance. A pursuit of their basest desires rendered with a kind of stern, even ambivalent detachment. Everything that happens seems to be consensual. Even the poor soul lashed on his bare behind cries in his agony for more of the same. As the title suggests, these characters are freely indulging themselves, though the shroud of night reveals how clandestine their pursuit is; how morally circumspect in the eyes of society.
Liberté not only criticises conservatism in 18th century France (and by extension our dreary present), but also the modern filmmaking landscape. It defies aggregates and uniform consensus. A piece of work that absolutely requests strong opinions from its audience, you’ll find rating spreads erratic and median scores irrelevant in gathering an idea of how you yourself will react to it. Some will find it outrageous. Others will find it utterly banal. A try-hard exercise in shock akin to Salò (I don’t subscribe to this take of either film) or not shocking in the slightest. We’ve been through extreme cinema and out the other side. Serra isn’t trying to shock or disgust you necessarily, but his film is a smart smack to the behind of complacent middle-of-the-road attitudes to movie-making… and movie-going.
As the Disney monster hoovers up talent for its vast outpouring of spandex adventures and star-based wars, the urgent need for outsider, prankster material exponentially grows. Cinema forever needs its renegades and rogues. It’s free-thinkers. Serra’s film celebrates these outsiders, working largely out of sight of the wider public eye. It isn’t above mocking or even criticising such self-fulfilling excesses either. It’s bewigged dogging session is a bite of the thumb to the unremarkable opulence of the mainstream basking in the daylight.
Maybe, just maybe there’ll be a beheading on the cards and the rascals can rule again… In the meantime, I’m oddly pleased that Liberté exists to beguile, bore and baffle.