Film Review: Albert Serra’s Provocative French Libertine Drama ‘Liberté’ ★★★★

Albert Serra, no stranger to tackling themes of darkness and debauchery in classic French society in previous feature Last Days of Louis XIV, turns his eyes to the French libertine tradition of yesteryear. Released on MUBI this Friday (Dec. 4th) , Liberté (Freedom) is some of the filmmaker’s most provocative work as it provides an entrancing, voyeuristic glimpse into sadism, the fulfilment of hedonistic pleasure, and the worlds of power in control in the context of pre-revolution France.

Written and directed by Serra, Liberté sees a group of extreme libertines expelled from the court of King Louis XVI prior to the French Revolution. They flee for Germany where they hope to rendezvous with free-thinking nobility Duc de Walchen (arthouse screen titan Helmut Berger) in the woods of his manor. The libertines engage in an evening of pleasure-seeking excess, with Liberté depicting the brutal extremes and provocative excesses of their debauchery.

Liberté opens with libertine Duc de Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) describing the graphic story of the King’s attempted assassin being torn limb from limb by four horses, making particular emphasis on three women who watched the gruesome scene unflinchingly with fascination, to the Duc de Walchen (Berger). Noting that these are the type of women he would like to meet, this graphic retelling preludes the disturbing debauchery that unfolds in the very forest that evening. This storytelling that many of the libertines share (the attack of nuns is suggested, whilst one flirts with abusing a young calf in a harrowing description), blending violence, sadomasochism and explicit sexual desires, seem to play out as a graphic narrative foreplay preceding the events which take place in the forest that evening.

Unfolding in what appears to be real time as the evening dawns, Serra’s direction is quietly voyeuristic and entrancing. With the sound of crickets, hushed voices, and figures discreetly moving around the woodlands, Serra crafts an air of sordid secrecy which matches the dark rural palette of the aesthetics. Framing his scenes with tight mid-shots or lingering long shots, many corners regularly obscured by pieces of foliage or branches serving as inventive techniques to craft a truly voyeuristic style.

The work of Mikhail Bahktin and his studies on grotesque bodies and embracing the carnivalesque feel prevalent here. The female libertines have a classical sexed-up glamour in powdered wigs, corsets and traditional French gowns; their male counterparts however, are elderly, disfigured, overweight, and equally wigged and powdered. The male figures, generally quite heinous, prowl, seduce and violate each other and their female companions – embracing their sadomasochistic and hedonistic desires in the film’s stylistic, yet overlong depiction of succumbing to pleasures. The female libertines give as good as they get in numerous scenes, depicting graphic torture and willing abuse of the pleasure-seekers.

The forest becomes brooding, creaking location for the libertines desires to unfold. Sounds of crickets and the woodlands blend with whip-cracks and demented screams of pain and pleasure. The sprawling runtime provides continual displays of lingering excess and unpleasantries which prove provocative but unappealing, sometimes stomach-churning. Whilst the libertines’ erotic pursuits are on display here, Serra ensures that this feels entrancing but not enjoyable. After near two hours of the libertines in search of their next slice of hedonistic fulfilment, a shot of innocent horses quietly munching on grass because a moment of joyous purity, giving our senses a break from the cavalcade of boundary-pushing exesses of flesh and violence.

Serra’s use of dialogue is sparing, but impactful when delivered. Establishing both the political context of the time through their struggle to find a place in the court of Louis XVI and the libertines’ parallels to their sadomasochistic pleasures being somewhat akin to Christ’s torture on the cross.

Liberté is a provocative, challenging piece that entrances through its voyeuristic style. It’s portrayal of unpleasant hedonistic excesses can be testing, but Serra has crafted an unrestrained portrait of the libertine movement in action.