LIBERTE, Country: France, Portugal, Spain. Director: Albert Serra. Screenwriter: Albert Serra. Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Theodore Marcade, Baptiste Pinteaux. Languages: French, German, Italian. Runtime: 130 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate and US Premiere. Release Date: TBA.
Mostly Indies Rating: A
Caveat emptor: this film may provoke walkouts. Venture forth with an open mind.
Not since discovering Pasolini ages ago while in college have I come across a film so unabashedly transgressive and willing to push the limits of eroticism to a point when it blurs the line between the imagined and the real, and then the real and the pornographic, and finally, the pornographic that seeks to titillate and the one that verges on the grotesque as Albert Serra’s Liberté. However, for someone like yours truly who at one time was actively involved in the leather scene (minus wigs and makeup), I could say upon viewing his movie, with an arched eyebrow and an expression of worldly cynicism, “Alrighty! That just happened. So much ado for naught. In my world this would be just another regular Saturday night at the dungeon. Not as messy as going outside into the woods and getting dirty, and that is exactly how I prefer it.”
However, in 1774, the time when the events of Liberté takes place, dungeons didn’t exist for consensual purposes and if you were sent to one, it was usually against your will and you pretty much died there, forgotten among the rats and other undesirables of France right before the Revolution of 1789. Just ask Sade, who mastered the art of writing his own brand of transgressive fiction, and who saw the life of day and freedom, oh, never, for most of his life, and until his death in 1814. Forgotten until the 1940s when his work was discovered tucked away, which is probably how he liked it anyway.
So, let’s go to the aforementioned events. You could summarize them in one sentence: One evening, libertines expelled from the court of King Louis the XVI gather in the depths of the forest with a German noble (played by Helmut Berger, the only marquee name of the cast of mostly unknowns) and engage in consensual debauchery.
And that’s it. The entire two and a quarter hours of Liberté is a series of vignettes taking place deep in the countryside (which could offer a sense equal parts privacy and transgression as they could be discovered at any time by a passerby). Some are light, merely verbal exchanges pregnant with a heavy Sadean influence.
In one particular scene somewhat in the middle of the movie two women engage in a discussion, mostly off-screen and in voiceover, about what to do with a weak man. One of them states how she would go by humiliating him over and over because she detests weakness in a man. When the other asks how would she present her affront to God, she replies that she wouldn’t care, and would love to receive “his perversion.” It is a highly erotic exchange, because while you don’t see anything happen and most of the scene is in the dark, your mind is on overdrive, imagining not just the act of humiliation, but that of possible retribution and the woman on the receiving end in ecstatic bliss as she receives her comeuppance. I’m pretty sure Sade would have chuckled at the very idea of not just perverting the divine, but also receiving bliss from it.
Other exchanges, however, are increasingly graphic in content. Here is where you either stay to the end (Albert Serra did ask the audience to stay until the final shot, because there have been walkouts in Cannes and other venues where Liberte has been screened), or decide you just can’t and throw in the towel, never to see Serra’s chosen ending. I wouldn’t go and classify any of these scenes as particularly erotic, but three are a standout; the humiliation of a blonde virgin tied to a tree and doused in buckets of milk. [At least I hope it was milk.] The scene involves only the images of the actress, restrained, her body glistening. The second involves one of the French Duc’s (Marc Susani) getting flogged until he shrieks in pain and ecstasy, and then the same Duc as he gets berated by the Madame de Dumeval (Theodore Marcade).
Now, for the crucial part: is this film recommendable? I would say yes if you dare, once it gets released in cinemas. [It has been acquired for distribution; its release date unknown at the time of this writing.] Nothing happens that is not so awful you can’t see it — and frankly, I have seen war movies and thrillers with more bloody content than anything that transpires here. Much of Serra’s film is strictly auditory as it is, so while two characters (or more) may be involved in a scene of consensual sex, we may hear loud shrieks and moans from a distance and wonder what the hell could be happening. The setting, strictly nocturnal, is perfect for Liberté, and only until the rather weird final scene in which daylight happens (yes, that is all), does light filter onto the trees while the sky remains dark. Liberte is an unclassifiable, but strangely beautiful, abstract exercise in nihilism and freedom posing as a period film indeed.