2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Audacious filmmaking almost always deserves to be commended. When a creative force opts for subversion and challenging audiences, knowing full well that their vision won’t be for most folks, that’s brave. However, one must still figure out a way to make their movie more than just that. If that’s not the case, how is an art film like “Liberté” any different from torture porn? What separates it from “A Serbian Film,” for example? Sadly, very little. Mixing the innocence of a bucolic setting with the filth of hardcore pornography, “Liberté” is a punishing experience with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. This movie is easily the worst thing to play at the New York Film Festival this year, and challenges for the worst\ NYFF has featured in some time. It’s truly vile and absolutely without merit.
“Liberté” wants to tell a tale of libertines seeking a safe haven for their exploitative pursuits. However, instead of focusing on that, the flick consists of endless monologues, repetitive sexual sequences, and some acts that the vast majority of audience members would be embarrassed to have pop up on their internet search histories. It’s not an exaggeration to state that a third of the 132-minute running time consists of shots of men with their hands down their pants, staring off at one thing or another. Nothing about this is inherently bad, or lacking in cinematic worth, but the style in which it’s told is completely pointless, making it into trash with an art house sheen.
What passes for a plot is rather thin. Most of the actual story comes during the long set up. Taking place in the woods of Germany around 1774, in the years before the French Revolution, a band of libertines have taken up residence. The puritanical King Louis XVI has expelled them from his court, so the likes of Duc de Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) and Madame de Dumeval (Theodora Marcadé) seek out Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger), a like-minded German. They hope to have the notable hedonist will help them in their cause of exporting libertinage. However, as much as they want to bring the philosophy forward, and monologue to that effect, mostly they want a spot to mess around in. In his part of the woods, they begin play a series of horrific games meant to showcase their lack of rules and need to fulfill abhorrent desires.
Once the libertine shenanigans begin, even more of the story goes out the window. Instead, it’s just one scene of sexual exploits after the next. Sometimes it’s men masturbating around a bound woman. Sometimes it’s analingus being performed or urination depicted. This doesn’t even take into account groping or actual sex. Mostly, it’s deviant behavior, which is all depicted for no reason. Some of it appears simulated, while other sequences are actually being performed. Either way, it’s painful to watch unfold.
It’s hard not to feel bad for the actors and actresses. They’re tasked with no characterization, bizarre motivations, and requirements to participate in acts they likely would never otherwise be caught dead doing. It’s brave to partake in this sort of project, to be sure, but the film is so bad, what benefit was there?
Writer/director Albert Serra is indebted to the landmark 1975 film “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Unfortunately, while Pasolini found a strangely hypnotic way to make art out of debauchery, Serra can not. Instead, it’s the repetition of static shots where nothing happens, then someone appears in the woods. They promptly masturbate or disrobe, then engage in a sexual act with at least one other individual, never once showing enjoyment. For a group that supposedly loves their lifestyle, it never comes across. That’s the biggest failing of the filmmaker here. Serra makes the libertine lifestyle seem rote.
“Liberté” is not just the worst that NYFF has to offer this year, it’s also easily one of the worst movies in some time. It’s not just a black mark on 2019 indie cinema, but is the sort of work that can hurt subsequent attempts at bold subversion. Serra wasn’t wrong to try to make this film. He just made it in the worst manner possible.