'Liberte': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Wait for the John Waters remake.

Catalan writer-director Albert Serra explores the extremes of desire in this bucolic fantasy set in the 18th century and co-starring venerable performer Helmut Berger.

Reigning high-cineaste monarch of rarified monotony, the Catalan director Albert Serra returns to festival safe space with Liberte, another tableau (barely) vivant in 18th century costume, only this time instead of dying in bed, like the eponymous king in The Death of Louis XIV, the characters are humping each other in a forest.

Adapted from a theatrical work Serra presented in Berlin in 2018, this sees acting eminence grise Helmut Berger (from Luchino Visconti's 1969 film The Damned and Vittorio De Sica's 1970 pic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) reprising his role as an aged nobleman keen to welcome libertine ways from France into the Prussian court. The action basically consists of long takes observing him, some other members of the nobility and a few random servants and captured convent girls getting debauched in a wood one night, like cottagers with handy palanquins to duck into instead of public toilets.

The result is basically plotless hardcore BDSM pornography channeling writers like Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille, among others, all shot with smudgy lighting and just the sound of crickets in the background. It's as if a bunch of horny grad students decided to loot a costume store and then remake Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom with camera phones, but less fun.

The first 10 minutes or so — it might have been less, but this film seems to stretch minutes into hours — features a long monologue from the Duc du Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) describing in an affectless drone how a man was put to death by being drawn and quartered, a famous description from Casanova's Memoirs cited by the philosopher Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish. Indeed, Discipline and Punish could have made a title for this instead of the near-meaningless handle it has since it requires discipline to withstand and is a punishment to endure.

At least despite the verbal descriptions of torment and humiliation uttered here and there, Serra doesn't go for full-on torture porn. Nearly all the characters, who couple, triple and quadruple up in various configurations and postures, seem willing and are arguably enjoying themselves, apart from the dude who gets stabbed near the end for no particular reason. One young lady is strung up and fondled; another has her bottom whipped with a switch, prompting cries of "Harder! Harder!" and so on, while assorted men stand around and masturbate. Like any other porn film, it saves the most shocking and outre sex acts for near the end, which in this case include a woman having her anus licked, and then another character who appears to be a burn victim with a semi-amputated arm getting a golden shower from some other women.

Finer minds than mine may divine a deeper, more profound purpose to all this, just as they managed to find something intellectually stimulating in the long slog of watching Jean-Pierre Leaud playing the Sun King snuffing out slowly in Louis XIV.  At least the costumes are fetching and seemingly pretty accurate, judging by a shot where one young lady picks her way around the forest in a corset and chemise up top and nothing but a wicker hoop skirt down below.

But even as pornography, it's not much of a source of joy, and the dialogue is even more risible than some of the worst efforts out of the San Fernando Valley. For instance, there's a bit where one character describes a long, filthy fantasy that involves bodily fluids and solids, to which another declaims that he misjudged him — he didn't realize how imaginative the other guy was. Maybe that's meant to be Serra's version of a buddy comedy.

Production companies: Ideale Audience, Rosa Filmes, Andergraun Films, Lupa Film
Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Theodora Marcade, Illiana Zabeth, Laura Poulvet, Baptiste Pinteaux, Alex Garcia Duttmann, Lluis Serat, Xavier Perez, Francesc Daranas, Catalin Jugravu, Montse Triola, Safira Robens
Director-screenwriter: Albert Serra
Producers: Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Joaquim Sapinho, Albert Serra, Montse Triola, Felix Von Boehm
Director of photography: Artur Tort
Costume designer: Rosa Tharrats
Editor: Ariadna Ribas
Music: Marc Verdaguer, Ferran Font
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Films Boutique

132 minutes