Catalan director Albert Serra rejoices in oddball period pieces, from the outré Casanova biopic “The Story of My Death” to the slow-burn “The Death of Louis XIV,” which delivers exactly that for two hours straight. Yet Serra’s work has a poetic charm percolating beneath its provocative exteriors, as if the very idea of merging the formalities of the past with vulgar flourishes registers as a grand historical punchline: Serra gives us the semblance of an old Eurocentric world as it likes to remember itself, but tosses in sex and bodily fluids that make it resonate in more immediate, visceral terms. His filmography amounts to an alternately gross and kinky history lesson.
To that end, “Liberté” is the movie he’s been building toward for the better part of a decade. Serra’s blend of elegant visuals and provocative subject matter reaches his apex with a lush, haunting movie almost exclusively comprised of wall-to-wall orgies in the woods, and it’s almost certainly the most explicit drama about the 18th century ever made.
Set in a shadowy French forest in 1774, “Liberté” finds Louche aristocrats exiled from the French court seeking out their kinky pleasures away from judgmental eyes. It’s there that they seek approval from German lothario Duc de Walchen (no less than Austrian provocateur Helmut Berger) under the auspices of discussing a radical new philosophical movement. But really they just want to get it on after dark.
“Liberté” aims to shock and disturb viewers with a blend of graphic sex and S&M antics to spare, practically inviting some subset of its audience to walk out in the process. (The very decision to program it last fall in the main slate of the New York Film Festival felt like a grand programming dare, and it seems readymade to trick some horny googlers into getting the opposite of what they probably hoped to find.) While “Liberté” is at times pornographic, nothing about it qualifies as porn in any traditional sense: The movie is a visual investigation into the roots of sexual liberation in societies steeped in repression. Watching it from start to finish is a means of engaging with the inquiry at its center.
And if you do that, try not to laugh; the impossibility of that gamble speaks to the nature of Serra’s intent. (At the first Cannes screening last May, this viewer failed a few times over.) Within its own deadpan framework, “Liberté” (which was originally designed for the stage, believe it or not) coalesces into an outrageous satire of aristocracy that reworks antiquated imagery into something altogether nastier and more immediate. There’s a surreal quality to the accelerating pileup of undulating bodies, as they strip down from loose-fitting sleeves, corsets and oversized wigs, the rigid nature of an era known only through paintings dissembling before our every eyes.
Virtually every body part (and a little bodily fluid) comes into play, with boundaries of gay and straight sex blurred beyond any simple categorization. There’s enough striking imagery at work here to make one wish that Serra might try to fuse the sequences together with some overarching narrative design, but “Liberté” doesn’t bother with those constraints, sometimes to its detriment. Newcomers to his particular brand of zany auteurism might want to start a little earlier on the timeline.
However, “Liberté” makes the case for its own existence with time. The filmmaker never pierces the muted, almost reverential tone, as the movie explores the idea that we’re watching sacred acts of freedom unfolding away from society’s judgmental eye. Not since the early days of John Waters has a filmmaker confronted his sultry subject in such unapologetic terms, even while conveying the impression that the whole thing’s one grand lark.
Serra, a cinematic character himself who parades around the festival circuit in dark shades making deadpan declarations, makes movies that dare you to operate on his wavelength — and then works overtime to make that investment worthwhile. The filmmaker once declared his movies “unfuckable”; now, he’s made the ultimate movie about fucking, and it’s fucking hilarious how well he pulls it off.
“Liberté” is now available at the Film at Lincoln Center’s website via Cinema Guild, and expands to more virtual cinemas in the coming weeks.