Review by Sean Boelman
If there has ever been a movie that seems like it was made for little more than the purpose of provocation, it is Albert Serra’s Liberté. An excessive film in many regards, but a fascinating one nevertheless, this will undeniably divide audiences because it lacks the substance to back up its aggressive level of content.
Set in the late 1700s, the film follows a group of disgraced nobles who had been ousted from the court of Louis XVI as they set out on a night of hedonism and sexual deviance. After an introduction in which two characters are pitching the events of the movie to a novice to their group, audiences are subjected to over two hours of bizarre (and sometimes disturbing) sexual “fantasies”.
However, even though there are a few scenes that are disgusting, and even one that is horrifying, much of the film doesn’t feel as shocking as it seems to hope to be. While some of the things depicted would have been punishable as crime in the era in which the movie was set, a lot of them can be seen today in the R-rated Fifty Shades of Grey. When Serra truly pushes the envelope, the film is effective at getting a reaction, but more often than not, that isn’t happening.
Perhaps Serra is saying something about the desensitization of society to sexuality, or maybe the movie is just an ode to freedom of expression in all forms. Whatever the message, it is not communicated clearly through this monotonous barrage of carnality. The audience is never given a reason why they should care about these events.
One of the things about the film that is sure to be most challenging is its unorthodox pacing. Of course, those scenes that are more shocking are sure to keep the audience invested if the film out of disbelief if nothing else, but after a while, it becomes clear that the script is very one-note and isn’t going to top some of the horrors that come mid-way through.
Another issue with the movie is its lack of character development. There are no arcs here whatsoever, and that is detrimental to the film. If the prologue had been expanded to give the characters more of a motivation, the story could have worked very well. As it, it amounts to little more than one big display of sexual oneupmanship.
That said, Serra shoots his movie in an undeniably intriguing way. The film takes place entirely in the setting of a forest, and Serra is able to take advantage of this setting to play into the idea of “wildness” that he explores. Additionally, the atmosphere that Serra builds is alternatingly alluring and deranged, fitting right in with the content.
Liberté is destined for controversy, and for good reason. The craft on display here can’t be denied, but whether or not that makes for compelling cinema is up to the viewer to decide. Some will say yes, but more often than not, Serra misses the mark.
Liberté is now screening online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
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