Liberté (2020)

The premise for Albert Serra’s latest #slowcinema provocation was too alluring of a hook for me to pass up, even though my patience was stretched beyond its limits in his previous film. In The Death of Louis XIV, Serra captured the boredom of waiting for death, filming French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as the titular monarch in his dying days, practically passing away onscreen in real-time. In its follow-up, Liberté, Serra captures the boredom of an unenthused orgasm, framing sex as the same kind of tedious bodily function as he previously framed death. I naively assumed meaningless sex would be more interesting to watch than a meaningless death, but Serra manages to make them equally boring & spiritually empty. To be fair, both movies are about boredom; I just don’t find that an especially rich subject, turns out.

In this glacially paced period drama, a small group of pre-Revolution French Libertines in exile take political refuge in the woods, passing the time by diddling each other and members of a nearby convent. There are no character beats or plot points to speak of, just bored old men seeking debaucherous sexual thrills over an unfulfilling, never-ending night in a “cursed place in the woods.” Figures don’t arrive on the scene so much as they materialize like ghosts, haunted by their philosophical commitment to seeking orgasms as an act of political rebellion, even though the going-through-the-motions drudgery suggests their hearts aren’t really in it. Throughout, Serra contrasts the gorgeous & the grotesque, the obscene & the serene. Quiet shots of the eerie woods are scored only by crickets and the rustling of pantaloons. That nature footage alternates with depraved, often unsimulated sex acts like analingus & piss play, presented with the same lack of urgency. There’s no purpose or direction for this monotonous, half-hearted activity, and it only ends because the sun eventually, thankfully rises.

It’s difficult to know what to do with a movie that aims to shock and bore audiences in equal measure. Liberté dwells in an awkward, liminal space between amoral debauchery & art cinema refinement. It’s like watching Salò hold out its pinky out while taking dainty sips of tea, perverse both in its content and in its own self-conflicted nature. I’m not sure that it adds much to the themes & textures of explicit provocations about the self-destructive nature of meaningless sex, though, especially since that canon is populated by much more exciting, exquisite titles: Salò, We Are the Flesh, In the Realm of the Senses, Stranger by the Lake, etc. There’s a sense of humor to the exercise at least, detectable in the way the Libertines stumble between sexual partners like Romero zombies in a shopping mall, or in the way one participant declares “Open the gates to Hell!” before rimming a nun-in-training. However, I gather that most of Serra’s amusement is rooted in intentionally boring himself & his audience, which is not at all my speed. This is a provocation fit only for #slowcinema aesthetes; more hyperactive trash gobblers like myself need to seek our own perverse thrills elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

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