‘Liberte’ Film Review: An Exploration of Dangerous Sex in Revolutionary France (NSFW)

Cannes 2019: Film by Spanish writer-director Albert Serra is a contemplation of Libertinism

Last Updated: May 18, 2019 @ 12:44 PM

If two hours of sado-masochistic 18thcentury sex doesn’t sound like a European art film to you, then you haven’t been to Cannes this year.

There is a lot to think about in “Liberte,” by Spanish writer-director Albert Serra, which screened in the Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday. One could describe the film as a contemplation of Libertinism, a hedonistic philosophy of all-consuming, transgressive sex, lived out in the film by a group of acolytes who plot their own socio-cultural upheaval in a forest in revolutionary Europe (possibly France, as the film is mostly in French).

You could also describe it as a two-hour-plus orgy of X-rated masochism, sadism, masturbation, sodomy, flagellations and humiliations of all kinds. (Including that kind that supposedly never happened in a certain Moscow hotel.)

And while the subject is undoubtedly crude, the film is magically quiet, with the central action taking place all night in a forest, the sounds of the cicadas providing a Rousseau-like backdrop of nature to the moaning and masturbation among the nobles in velvet cutaways and powdered wigs.

The men and women in the film move nearly silently through the film, disrobing in part and then fully, in increasing levels of explicitness, with the shadows of the forest setting off their sexual maneuvers.

It is striking to see a dazed participant in her corseted top, her naked lower half encircled by a whalebone hoop skirt frame. The frontal nudity is true for the men and women, with the actors bravely embodying the scatological vision of Serra. Equally striking is the beautiful cinematography, depicting most of the action in a wooded glen studded with carriage-like rooms where the characters float in and out of their sexual perversions.

It isn’t sexual satisfaction these people seek but, it seems, a deeper human yearning to feel intensely and to inflict equally intense feeling on others. To inhabit the body fully and feel not pleasure but hunger and often deliberate pain. (I am no expert in the matter, but that’s my read.) In that sense, the film has deeper transgressions in its sights than just sexual ones.

The philosophy itself is never truly explained, and the Marquis de Sade is never mentioned in the film. But the early days of modern sexual obsession are evident here, with nobles and convent members among those in the commune, living far outside the lines of society and testing “the price we must pay for changing the world,” as one character puts it.