Following a trajectory introduced in 2009’s Honour of the Knights and continuing though to the great The Death of Louis XIV, Albert Serra pushes his cinema ever closer towards a fleshy, corporeal abstraction in Liberté, an uncompromising, formalist vision which explores the practice and ideology of the libertine lifestyle in late 18th-century France. Premiering to a steady stream of walk-outs and heckles at the Debussy theatre, Liberté is, by some margin, the most experimental film of the 2019 Cannes line-up. The bare sketch of a narrative is compressed into the film’s first few minutes: a group of libertines who have been banished from of the court of Louis XVI on obscenity charges takes refuge in a patch of woodland between Berlin and Potsdam. Once there, they find guidance from German hedonist Duc de Walchen.
The remainder of the feature takes the form of a nocturnal orgy session, as the gaggle of aristocrats engages in various acts of sexual gratification which encompass myriad fetishes: voyeurism, sadism, flagellation, urolagnia, sitophilia, humiliation, and analingus, among others. Serra captures these sessions with a restrained, delicate eye, confining them to tableaux set against the natural landscape or within luxurious sedan chairs. The atmosphere is neither titillating nor puckish (one can easily imagine a provocateur such as, say, Von Trier, presenting these acts as a means to shock and bait a festival audience), but pleasantly serene, as Serra explores the boundaries of a louche, self-constructed utopia. These practitioners of dissolution may flirt with abject pain in their fearless experimentation with all of the physiological effects the body can produce, but the enacted fantasies are always consensual, indulged in without shame, and presented with a refreshingly non-judgemental air. The somnolent tone is heightened by the hushed sound design, which eschews non-diegetic music and instead dials up the ambient sounds of nature — birdsong, crickets, the wind through tree branches, the light drizzle of rain.
This act of taking an ironic period in history and realizing it cinematically through an intense focus on physiological reactions has defined Serra’s cinema from the outset, but never has he jettisoned the essential tenets of classical filmmaking (lucid characterization, narrative drive, temporal consistency) as thoroughly as he does here. Serra’s libertines are not so much characters as they are bodies; the subject matter suggests a clear kinship to Louis XIV, but while that earlier film tracks the death of the tyrannical monarchy through a sustained interest in the biological matter of the king’s decaying body, Liberté celebrates the physical jouissance of those seeking liberation from the rules of the court. Whereas Louis XIV portrays the body as a decaying prison, a mass of rotting flesh to which the soul is enslaved, Liberté positions it as a vessel for euphoria; the transgressive pleasures on display hold political and sociological connotations.
The feature begins with an extended monologue detailing the slow and horrific torture of a man plotting to kill the king, with the most shocking portion of this tale being the delight taken by the proletariat who witnessed this event. And so the all-encompassing oppression of court life is established, and the central figure’s desire to break through the taboos of this society through an adherence to the ecstasies of the sensual world is contextualized in political terms, positioning them in direct opposition to the passive masses who have internalized Louis XIV’s strict doctrine of puritanical self-regulation. The notion of complete sexual and artistic freedom as an opposition from the authoritarian control of the monarchy, with its institutional and ideological domination over the body, is the crux of Liberté. This heady theoretical idea, however, is evoked purely through the rigorous materialism of Serra’s filmmaking, with its total emphasis on the potentialities of the flesh, intertwining bodies with one other and the knotted textures of the forest, captured in stately compositions which beautifully employ digital cinematography to channel the appearance of Rococo painting.
Liberté was first developed as a stage project for the Volksbühne Berlin, then adapted into a two-channel gallery installation, and now realized as a feature film. Reportedly, much of the footage captured for the installation piece was reused in the film version, and though I can certainly see how the Liberté may have functioned within a gallery setting, the way the film plays with duration and structure makes it a uniquely cinematic experience. The sexual acts themselves unfold in what seems like real time, although the rapidly encroaching dawn creates a strange temporal dissonance. And the film’s sense of exploration is more important than gratification, as climaxes (sexual, structural, narrative) are continuously denied, the escalation of each act leading to either frustration or an abrupt shift to the next. Any sense of sensationalism is dismantled in favour of oneiric immersion, encouraging the viewer to give themselves over to the hypnotic, languorous rhythms.