Reviewed by: Georgiana Musat

"Serra turns to period pieces not out of nostalgia, but quite the contrary, to provoke and dismantle - a grotesque imagery looking to alter the often sublime portrayal of such figures." | Photo: © Román Yñán

When describing his films, Gaspar Noé referred to them as “movies out of blood, sperm, and tears” - if I may, Albert Serra’s films are made out of “blood, excrements, urine and sperm”, a combo that would chase away any conservative. In his Dalinian irreverence, a place where angels would fart and laugh like little monsters, excrement is literally turned into gold.

There’s no such thing as sobriety in his work, rather an incessant desire to tear down myths: Casanova, Louis XIV, Dracula, are all stripped down to their physical, bare necessities and seen as impotent, constipated, handicapped or terminally ill. Serra turns to period pieces not out of nostalgia, but quite the contrary, to provoke and dismantle - a grotesque imagery looking to alter the often sublime portrayal of such figures.

Liberté/Liberty, his latest slow-cinema entry, the Special Jury Prize winner in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes, is a rococo cinematic composition between theatre and visual installation (Serra takes inspiration from his homonymous German play and his Spanish installation, Personalien). It follows a number of libertines (one of them is played by Helmut Berger) who, after eloping from court, seek sexual refuge in an unknown forest. The year is 1774, at the gates of the French Revolution - while oblivious to history’s natural course, hedonists will temporarily fantasise about spreading debauchery worldwide. In these chiaroscuro “poisonous woods”, as one character puts it, they no longer embody their social and political status, for no such thing is permitted on the altar of erotical indulgence: an indistinct mass of silent creatures, master and servant, appearing from bushes, hands on penis, cruising. In Liberty, anyone can perform, at any time, or just hide in their laced sedan chair, waiting for an ideal prey. It’s surprising that, in spite of its erotical charge, their full moon fornication binge has so little to do with intercourse at all: all these men are desperately trying to get aroused, but no excess or sexual deviation can lift their limp penises.

As one delves into the night, there’s a cacophony of sounds coming from everywhere: whispers, quiet moans, insects chirping, all congruous yet eerie - the sensation of never really telling if you’re looking or looked at (“I feel like a prey”, a female courtesan whispers). Serra creates the feeling of a flowing sand, that’s both shared by protagonists and viewer, that everything and everyone is lurking, looking for sex. There’s no sense of distance in this piece - you’re either too far from or too engaging, almost arbitrarily, with sounds constantly coming off-screen.

In this way, Liberty resembles a ritualistic jungle, where animals make sure their steps are light and precise - not risking getting eaten by unfriendly creatures. Viewers waiting for a final resolution or meaning would only find themselves blinded by the break of the day, announcing the adventure is over - beware of those who are still up in the wild, exposing themselves. However self-indulgent or self-sufficient, Serra confirms that his voice is getting even louder, clearer, and uncompromisingly transgressive.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2020
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Liberté packshot
A group of 18th century libertines are expelled from court and wander in the forests, seeking asylum.
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Director: Albert Serra

Writer: Albert Serra

Starring: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth

Year: 2019

Runtime: 138 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Portugal, Spain, Germany

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