Color, 2019, 137 mins. 42 secs.
Directed by Albert Serra
Starring Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Laura Poulvet
Second Run (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Imagine A Midsummer Night's Dream rewritten by the Marquis De Sade and that's a pretty good starting point to describe Liberté, a stylish and perverse look at the French aristocracy over the course of one eventful and very dark night spent in the woods. If any film ever fell under the "not for everyone" label this would be it, but in as an example of the frequent and peculiar melding of the art house and grindhouse, it proves there are still plenty of buttons out there left to be pushed.
The episodic tale unfolds starting at dusk in 1774 as multiple libertines expelled from court during a turning of the revolutionary tide congregate in different configurations to win the favor of the Duc de Walchen (Berger), who's arrived from Germany. Nothing that these debauched individuals "share the same interests" and needing women to carry on the libertinage lifestyle at home and abroad in Prussia, the Duke allows them to indulge in their bestial natures away from the watchful eye of society in a variety of eye-opening scenarios before the ultimate light of day arrives again.
That's pretty much it for the plot, which manages to evoke a genuinely Sadean atmosphere through both its imagery and dialogue with an increasing level of explicitness after a fairly low-key opening act. The fact that it's all very aesthetically captured and mostly in dim chiaroscuro lighting contrasts significantly with the more outrageous performances on display, including a startling unsimulated golden shower orgy that will likely keep this out of circulation in more than a few territories. Calling this pornography seems like a stretch though given that nothing seems intended to be genuinely arousing and most of the sex is simulated and from a distance, but there's still more than enough explicit language and casual nudity to keep this one away from screening in mixed company. More than a few reviewers have noted similarities to earlier outrage films like Salo, though in this case it's more about sexual excess (including the prerequisites like light bondage and bare butt whipping) than violence apart from a grisly opening monologue and one bloody bit of limb mangling.
Director Albert Serra, who became something of a film festival darling with 2016's much tamer The Death of Louis XIV, shot this film digitally which results in an image that's certainly clear enough but also flatter than the deep, rich blacks that celluloid could have provided. In its finest visual moments, the film evokes the approach of prior directors ranging from Walerian Borowczyk to Roberto Rossellini with the forest setting giving it a unique, fantastic flavor at times. The global uncensored Blu-ray debut from Second Run (whose 18 rating on the packaging is very much earned!) is region free and captures the look of the film quite nicely, with even the darkest scenes (of which there are many) looking clean and very legible so you can make out every detail, for better or worse. It's not the most dynamic looking film in the first place, but this is as good a way to see it as you're likely to find and true to the source. The French audio is presented in 16-bit DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 24-bit 2.0 PCM stereo with optional English subtitles; both sound very good for a sound mix that isn't exactly designed to tax your speakers, with the stereo one having a bit more dynamic punch to it in a few moments. Decked in sunglasses and a big white scarf, Serra provides a brief English-language video introduction (3m17s) and appears for a more substantial video interview (27m48s) that goes into his intentions behind the film, his thoughts on the reactions of critics, the casting of the film with largely unknown performers including members of the crew who were willing to disrobe, and the trickery necessary to capture sound and direct actors from such a far distance in many scenes. The French theatrical trailer is also included, and a 24-page insert booklet features an essay by Jason Wood, "The Monotony of Lust," and an additional text interview with Serra conducted by Manu Yáñez-Murillo, both well worth reading as they feature useful historical context, thoughts on the themes of sexuality as a relief for malaise, and the influence of other writers and artists including Catherine Millet.
Reviewed on January 21, 2021