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1774, a few years before the French Revolution, somewhere between Potsdam and Berlin - Madame de Dumeval, the Duke of Tesis and the Duke of Wand, libertines expelled from the Puritan court of Louis XVI, sought the support of the legendary Duke of Walchen, a seducer and free thinker from Germany, alone in a country where hypocrisy and false virtue reigned. Their mission: to export libertinage to Germany, a philosophy of enlightenment based on the rejection of morality and authority but also, and above all, to find a safe place to continue their misguided games.Written by
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The logic of the night
'Liberté' is an arthouse film that's meant to provoke and perhaps even shock. It's about desire taken to the extreme, beyond the niceties of society and reason. It features a group of people of different social classes and ages, who surrender themselves in the darkness of the forest to pleasure and pain, concepts that become indistinguishable from one another. The story, if one may call it that, starts with naughty insinuations and escalates into an all out sadomasochistic extravaganza. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it doesn't deserve the low rating that it has received so far on IMDb.
Then again, Catalan director Albert Serra never meant to please the audience. He cheekily claims to have been upset by the warm reception of his previous film, the somewhat more accessible 'The Death of Louis XIV'. So he tried to redeem himself this time around by creating something less palatable. He complains that today, most films are made only to gratify the audience and that self-censorship keeps artists from saying anything that may be regarded as too dark, too ambiguous or too offensive for the collective. Fiction is supposed to "break taboos" and show "what's worst about human beings, as a form of catharsis. That's how Greek tragedy was born," he explains in an interview.
The title can be interpreted as ironic, as this absolute "liberty" that the protagonists engage in seems like madness and it isn't clear to what degree they actually enjoy it. Emotion here is expressed with animalistic grunts and sometimes agonizing screams. What I think is important is that it's all done consensually. All the participants voluntarily submit to this strange ritual and share an unspoken moral code. When one of the characters keeps asking for more whipping than he can physically take, the others deny it to him, as if they thought that he was being too greedy. The director believes that "in order to have a true communion between bodies" one must give up the sense of individuality and devote oneself to giving and not only receiving pleasure. What I found most interesting is that beyond a certain point, as the director puts it, "it ceases to matter whether the other person is tall or short, thin or corpulent, young or old, beautiful or ugly." Desire can level the field between "masters and servants, the rich and poor, the handsome and ugly, men and women..." At least in this picture, it seems to reduce human culture to very basic primitive needs, in a way that is egalitarian. There's something grotesque about the imagery in the film, yet at the same time, it looks like these libertines in the forest may be on to something.
"'Liberté'", Serra offers, "is a poem about the logic of the night, unproductive and sterile." Indeed, what is lacking in this deranged orgy is any hint of tenderness, of caring, or constructive contemplation. There is only desperate, burning desire and chaos. There is no trace of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac reigns supreme.
"Liberté" could be viewed as a celebration of artistic freedom. I'm thankful that we live in an era in which someone like Serra can dream up a beautiful nightmare like this, and that at least in some countries, we can view it in cinemas and later comment on it on IMDb.
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