Albert Serra pushes cinematic limits, but the results fall short of aspired subversion

Patrick Preziosi on Albert Serra’s ‘Liberté’ (2019)

Of all the current films to meet their unfortunate, COVID-dictated, straight to streaming fate these last few uncertain months, Albert Serra’s Liberté is the most confounding in trying to parse, and subsequently facilitate, the necessary circumstances for an optimal viewing experience. Are Serra’s layered sound designs and burnished images of an intermittently successful, pansexual, sadomasachistic, circa-1774 French orgy hampered by awkwardly sitting elbow-to-elbow with a relative stranger in a darkened theatre? Or is that preferable to the inevitable midday glare blotting out cinematographer Artur Tort’s inky palette of blacks, blues, and greens? 

Serra, an arthouse bad boy armed with international cache (and a persona akin to Nicolas Winding Refn), who sports leather attire and uses adverbs such as “un-fuckable” to describe his films, demonstrably wants Liberté to be taken on its own terms. But the endgame of its exploratory nighttime odyssey is inscrutable, which is only exacerbated by its bastardised “theatrical” release.

The degree of separation between home and the cinema is vast enough already, but as many have called attention to Liberté’s past as an installation work at the 2015 Venice Biennale — which entails static, rich tableaux bereft of typical notions of climax and buildup — the rift deepens only further. Any objective acceptance of both virtues and drawbacks is inherently muddled, and what was already a film of slippery intent and discomfiting, sexual cruelty feels largely non-committal. Which — in critical shorthand for purportedly polarising projects steeped in opacity — “may have been the point.” 

The “point”, too, is concisely encapsulated by the title: Liberté is an ever-spinning carousel of attempted liberation, from corporeal, emotional, political, sexual, mental strictures, a simultaneous emancipation from body and mind in a pure effort to “open the gates of Hell.” In a lushly wooded stretch of forest somewhere between Berlin and Potsdam congregate an exiled group of libertine aristocrats, banished from the court of Louis XVI, though still committed to their libertinage. A late afternoon retelling of the execution of Robert-François Damiens for regicide, as told by the Count de Tesis (Marc Susini) to German nobleman, Duke of Walchen (Helmut Berger, one of the few actors not imported from Serra’s usual troupe of now-former nonprofessionals) is grizzly even as told secondhand, so much so that even the libertine covered his ears as the screams rang from the victim’s being drawn and quartered. 

Lest Serra inserts anything tangential into his otherwise rigorous exercise, Tesis’ story settles on a moment of happenstance-cum-significance, the Count noticing a group of women on a spectator terrace remaining tranquil even in view of the court of execution below. The desired subjects for the theatre of cruelty are similarly undaunted women, immune to such extreme treatments of the human body, and it is implored of the Duke of Walchen that he delivers such participants. And as the libertines wait, they strategise, cataloguing their “pissing instruments,” concocting a balm of shit and dirt to be lathered on sweating subjects, and deciding who will climax when, where, and how. 

Then, with Serra’s environment handily established, the title card drops, and the sun has completely set. The only factor to now dictate the ebb and flow of Liberté is duration, inasmuch that the sexual acts on display are less a panoply than a spiralling series of failures, even as they zigzag across borders of heterosexuality, voyeurism, and self-pleasure. 

Much of Serra’s humour derives from inabilities of all kinds; the throughline from La Mort de Louis XIV (2014), in which the Sun King continuously ails in the face of faith healing and other archaic measures, to Liberté is easily traced. What is expected and even intensely desired is almost never achieved in a Serra film, and just as Louis XIV’s body withers away, something similar plagues the libertines, in which the most explicit and basest affirmations of their masculine humanness — erectness and ejaculation — eludes them at nearly every turn throughout the night. 

Such bodily failure does little to influence the film’s worldbuilding, or its temporal derring do, as Serra maintains a laconic tenor that cedes no opportunity to intervals of rupture. Just as true eroticism is never achieved, the fumbling bouts of bondage and watersports never devolve into the indisputably torturous, so tempered are the acts by their participants’ inefficiency.

Serra’s films ostensibly qualify as “slow cinema”, but there’s an inherent trickiness in unknotting the director’s push for an immersive timescale as if it’s wittingly Liberté’s defining feature, or a byproduct of oblivious directorial stuffiness ratcheted up to the nth degree. Elements that should be discombobulating are instead introduced as the central conceit (not unlike the inevitable death drive of Louis XIV), and once one has made it beyond Tesis’ fantasizing of a round of beastiality, involving the nose of a calf, every subsequent act — both hypothetical and attempted — is sapped of its subversive power. 

The repeated return to this visually sumptuous, specific 18th-century milieu hasn’t elucidated much of Serra’s authorial aspirations, save for juxtaposition of a specific kind of down-and-dirty indulgence with the otherwise opulent trappings of the era, powdered wigs and faux-moles. It’s less a matter of historicity than a fertile aesthetic groundwork. That Serra’s company is populated by relative novices lays the groundwork for potential scintillation, a tension in performance and appearance that wouldn’t be unlike Roberto Rossellini’s masterful The Taking of Power By Louis XIV (1966). 

The introduction of sex complicates things, however, belying a presentation of true eroticism; although awkwardness is the obvious intended effect in all the flaccid penises and whatnot, the clumsiness extends past the script in that there’s no palpable sense of engagement, flagging or not. In assembling lone-standing figures enshrouded in the night and whispered conversations that vie with one another on the soundtrack for the viewer’s ear, the filmmaker’s chilly remove finds its most signifying execution. But in contextless libertinage gone awry, Serra seems to have stumbled into an unintended formal experiment on the varying success rate of shock tactics, so absent is he beyond the immediate responsibilities of the composition.

Liberté is now available through Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.