Photo: Cinema Guild
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Spotlight

Liberté | Albert Serra

June 1, 2020

Liberté is gorgeous and confounding, a Brechtian presentation of passion, tedium and perversion.

Albert Serra’s Liberté continues the director’s penchant for placing human rot, literal and metaphorical, within the garish trappings and knowing artifice of re-creation. Presented here are the wanton sexual and violent revels of a brood of exiled French libertines, over the course of a single night, bewigged and powdered bodies splayed amidst dense forestry and within aristocratic carriages. This group is intent on exporting their freethinking philosophy of hedonism to Germany, with the help of the Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger). But on this night, they’re also just here to party. Serra has long favored elaborate staticism, the baroque frills of late 18th century Europe dominant in his frames, and that remains much the same in Liberté. The director’s approach is painterly; he crafts nightmare compositions of a forest blanketed by night’s dark, the branches like webs, shadows both obscuring and exposing. Silhouettes are glimpsed through bramble, and moon and stars light upon hidden figures and open-air copulations.

Also evident here is the kinship between Serra’s instincts and a certain Brechtian theatricality: Liberté offers a refinement of the way Serra uses sound and space. Sonics mostly consist of chirruping birds and the buzzing of insects, with dry grass crunching underfoot, whispered arousals, and literal ass-whippings constituting the din of action. In an early wide shot, a gently swaying forest is patiently captured a beat too long, before figures emerge on tiptoe like ghosts from the wood, an ominousness felt in their deliberate movements and in the suggestion of the hidden depths from which they have emerged. Even despite the density of color and shape in this scene, Dogville still feels like the closest touchstone: the dimensionality wrought in this sequence is reminiscent of Von Trier’s affect, while the positive space also slowly transitions to negative space, reorienting the viewer’s gaze in real time.

The shots here are undeniably gorgeous, but haunted and sometimes menacing as well. And while retaining the familiar medium and long shots of Serra’s previous films, the camera too takes on a different personality: in a mirroring of its subjects, it often plays voyeur to voyeurs (and likewise invites the viewer into yet another level of such observation), spying on foliage-obscured figures and capturing incomplete images of fleshly entanglements, masochism, and erotic frustrations. That Serra marries his images with Sadeian carousels feels inevitable, his portrait of humanity’s murkiness and inscrutability fittingly set within the similarly mercurial but beautiful natural world. Ultimately, this is more presentation than study: we are treated to both broad and subtle dramatics, with extreme sexual acts captured just as often as fleeting glances of boredom or anxiety, and little else is done to suggest any cogent thesis. But if the freedom implied in the title of Serra’s latest remains unsettled at credits’ roll – and it does, the themes never really parsed out – that feels largely by impish design, and in embrace of that very sovereignty.

Published as part of May 2020’s Before We Vanish.