The Clearing
By Josh Cabrita

NYFF 2019:
Liberté
Dir. Albert Serra, France/Portugal/Spain, Cinema Guild

In 1774, in the woods somewhere between Potsdam and Berlin, a libertine aristocrat banished from the court of Louis XVI tells a German nobleman about the execution of Robert-François Damiens, accused of attempted regicide, on March 28, 1757. Unprompted, he explains how Damiens’s flesh was burned and peeled with red-hot pincers, how four horses attempted and failed to dismember his limbs, how his tendons had to be cut with knives, and how the poor devil’s torso was burned at the stake while he let out shrieks of hitherto unknown anguish. This story of the public execution to end all public executions opens Albert Serra’s Liberté, setting the stage for a theater of cruelty whose methods are equally vast and varied. But if the story of this uncommonly excruciating end testifies to the despot’s control over his subjects and his ability to punish their misdeeds, the sadomasochism of Serra’s film suggests an alternative to supreme authority: emancipation from religion, societal norms, and monarchical rule—in other words, liberty in its purest and most naive form.

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish—a title that could apply equally well to Serra’s sex odyssey—could help explain why the director starts his film with a story of a death from 17 years prior, when France was under a different monarch and the prospect of revolution didn’t loom so large. Foucault’s landmark text begins with two fragments that evince two very different conceptions of punishment: the first is the story of Damiens’s execution as told by a contemporaneous newspaper article, and the second is Leon Faucher’s rules “for the young prisoners in Paris,” which outlines the strictly regimented routines of juvenile delinquents in captivity. The question, then, is how, over the course of the 80 years that separate these two documents, the reigning penal program could shift from public spectacles in which punishment is directed at the body to a form of private retribution that takes “the soul” of the criminal as its site of correction. Liberté takes place in the transitional period between these styles of punishment and at a moment when the politics of the body were undergoing a drastic reversal along with the shifting apparatuses of the State. And its characters, aware of it or not, envision and practice an alternative to both paradigms.

Leave it to Serra, one of our preeminent practitioners of Slow Cinema, to kick things off with an extratextual excursion for the sole purpose of clarifying his characters’ political positions. Even though Serra’s filmography focuses almost exclusively on continental Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the director rarely makes his interests in the Enlightenment explicit. In Liberté, for example, the sociohistorical context of Damiens’s execution is an aside, an act of foreplay, an intimation of deeds to come. It gives meaning to the libertine’s actions, but gets us no closer to understanding the director’s method. It offers erudite viewers the opportunity to apply—or, some might say, project—various strains of knowledge, but provides no explanation as to why this milieu merits this aesthetic treatment.

Libertéexpends a good deal of energy realizing its highly specific environment and then lets time—or, in this case, “duration”—do the brunt of the remaining work. Set over the course of a long, dark night of debauchery, it features a dozen subjects and a nearly equal number of flaccid penises; depicts a variety of sex acts (hetero and not, in pairs or in groups); and creates a complex geography of intersecting glances. Shrouded in secrecy or engulfed in the action, the characters cruise from one unsimulated encounter to the next. Shedding tradition and taboo, they oscillate between the roles of top and bottom, voyeur and exhibitionist, dominant and submissive, all in an attempt, as per the spiritually inflected dirty talk of the late 18th century, to “open the gates to hell.”

Such eschatological portent, indicative of a desire for Sadean release, never finds its fulfilment in Liberté. As the morning becomes imminent and the prospect of satisfaction less and less likely, Serra’s libertines are increasingly intentional in their attempts to reach climax: a woman is whipped, asking for it to be done again, harder; shackled and bare-breasted, another female hangs from a tree while being showered with milk and semen; and a one-armed man, presumably injured in the Seven Years’ War, is stabbed repeatedly with a pitchfork while being urinated on by off-screen participants. (As the human bladder doesn’t naturally carry enough liquid to satisfy his artistic intentions, Serra has said that this scene required numerous takes and multiple men to accomplish.)

One might expect, given Serra’s considerable compositional skill, that his tableaux would accentuate the latent tension of these scenarios. Indeed, the focal points and patches of privacy created by the director’s Caravaggio-like interplay of low light and controlled shadow might have been used to suggest a conflict between the push-pull of lust and caution. But lest his film be charged with trafficking in the same philistine stuff as pornography, Serra rarely, if ever, allows his erotica to be, well, erotic. Not as well versed in the art of the exaggerated orgasm as adult-film actors, Serra’s nonprofessionals are awkward and imprecise. At any given moment, it’s unclear whether we’re seeing the gestures of an actor or the involuntary movements of a body, a poor performance of pornography or a documentary account of failed orgasm. If an amateur acting workshop attempted to recreate an orgy, it would look a lot like Liberté.

The unbridgeable gap between word and deed, body and spirit, ideal and material, are the film’s primary subjects. But as much as Serra would like us to nestle metaphysical notions into discussions of his film’s limp dicks, Liberté remains modest at the level of text. Whereas the usual methods we employ for reading a narrative film might instruct us to place Liberté in its historical context, evaluate how it conforms to or challenges established notions about the period, or analyze how its form thinks through its content, the film remains frustratingly opaque even when subjected to this scrutiny. It’s operating on another plane.

Along with directors like Chantal Akerman, Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, and Béla Tarr, Albert Serra is one of a growing number of art filmmakers to straddle the line between the museum and the cinema. At the 2015 Venice Biennale (and later at TIFF), Serra presented Singularity, a five-screen installation. In 2018’s Roi Soleil, which revisits the fated events of The Death of Louis XIV, Lluís Serrat Masanellas, one of Serra’s frequent collaborators, acts out the monarch’s slow descent into the grave live in a gallery; the film functions as a documentation of this performance. And prior to its actualization in the form of a narrative film, Liberté had two past lives: first as an opera and then as a two-screen installation, which uses much of the same footage as the film while rejigging the order in slight ways.

It’s understandable why these artists might want to venture beyond the confines of the cinema in the first place. While the museum allows for chance, improvisation, and site-specificity, the cinema flattens its conditions of exhibition. It’s no surprise that the innovations of 1970s conceptual art, which turned the conditions of viewing a work into the very work itself, have had little influence on cinematic practice even as they have indelibly influenced the world of art gallery video installations. But this dearth of site-specific films has nothing to do with a lack of cinema-specific knowledge in this area. For as long as there have been movies, there have been theories about them; and about as long as there have been theories about them, people have tried to explain the visual pleasure that we derive from the theatrical experience: the lights fade, the spectator sits in privacy, and the image satisfies all of his (gendered pronoun intended) knowable and unknowable desires—conditions which, come to think of it, are not all that different from those of the onscreen environment in Liberté.

As with any good 18th-century fuckabout, the ideal viewing of Liberté, whether it be in the Debussy at Cannes or the Scotiabank theatre at TIFF, would require the absolute attention, the common awe of its attendees. This experience would owe itself not to the astonishment experienced by viewers of a mainstream entertainment, but more to a collective embarrassment predicated on this film being shown in this place. It’s at this level that Liberté operates most productively: not as some revolutionary depiction of sex, but as a means of recognizing a mutual need shared by our neighbors, ourselves, and the people onscreen. How we choose to respond and tend to this need is the enduring mystery of Liberté and cinema-going in general. Change the context, and you might see through Serra’s libertines for what they are: movie lovers—Truffaut’s sick people—in disguise.