Albert Serra’s Guide to Pleasure

Albert Serra’s Guide to Pleasure
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The generally “self-righteous” routine of the Cannes International Film Festival – whose current topics include immigration, the environment and corruption of the world’s “big wigs” – which ended on May 25, was suddenly shaken up at the end of its first third by a film directed by Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra entitled Liberté (Freedom). Serra emerged in 2006 with Honor of the Knights/Quixotic, a very liberal adaptation of the Don Quixote story which gave Cervantes’ 17th century novel a poetic and politically modern update. And in 2008 he directed the very stunning Birdsong. In short, he is a poet but most of all Serra is also a filmmaker with the inconceivable audacity to reconstruct the last hours of the life of Louis XIV (from the 2016 film, the Death of Louis XIV with Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose portrayal of physical deterioration is stunning, in the title role). The decadence, if not the decrepitude, of all kinds of royalty, is an obsessive theme for the filmmaker who also directed an improbable meeting between Casanova and Dracula in 2013’s Story of My Death.

The film shown at Cannes this year pushes the boundaries of representation of sexual depravity, avoiding the failure of Pasolini’s Salo. Albert Serra correctly recalls that, according to Sade, the ear is the organ most capable of enjoying pleasure. And it’s indeed one of the film’s goals to concretely bring this observation to life for the viewer. The film’s plot describes the debauchery organized by less than a dozen men and women within an obscure wood, barely lit by a moon that never rises. The film therefore only focuses on a certain number of pornographic acts whose thorough performance seems like a kind of inventory that goes on until exhaustion. Nothing seems to deter Albert Serra throughout the two hours and 12 minutes from depicting irrepressible sexual desires, brought to life by a kind of greedy and desperate gluttony. Something about this film overwhelmingly brings to mind the experience of watching La grande bouffe by Marco Ferreri when it was first screened in 1973 in Cannes. It’s precisely by venturing close to scatology, a line that the film figuratively threatened to cross many times, that Serra demonstrates that the ear is really the most skilful organ for producing pleasure. Midway through the film, an extra-diegetic text describes the sequence of everything that the audience expected would erupt since the beginning of the film: the words are spoken with a great serenity but nevertheless invite the viewers to imagine the vomiting and excreta swallowed by a lover or a mistress. What an auditory shock!

What is even more striking in the film is the scenography (there was a previous theatrical version of this majestic piece in Volksbuehne in Berlin in 2018):  a coach stops in a clearing. The noble passengers and their valets give themselves over to embraces which obviously do not fulfill their desires. The actors within this obscene ceremony indulge in acts outside the norms of conventional sexuality; noses continuously pressed between the buttocks and crouching women urinating on ecstatic men. Nevertheless, they continue to search furtively, their gaze searching the darkness to find other couples in action.  Serra’s direction subtly strives to place these characters on the right and left edges of the frame to accentuate their attraction for other couples consumed by their sexual devouring, this distraction reflecting their inability to satisfy their insatiable libidinal appetite.

The journalists in attendance at Cannes were somewhat embarrassed to review the film. Later, the friendly and conventionally sexual, “young and sunny” second episode of Mektoub my love by Kechiche – Serra makes them old and gloomy – manages to ease some consciences whose puritanism might elicit calls for censorship. During the screening of Liberté, some snickering could be heard and which was legitimate in light of the film’s grotesque depiction of its characters sexual gluttony. Is the film inspired by real historical facts? It brings to mind the famous Parc-au-cerfs (literally, Deer Park) property ruled by one of Louis XV’s favourites, the Marquis of Pompadour, or by the alluring Marie-Louise O’Murphy, a legendary icon of debauchery and a chubby girl whose bare buttocks were painted by Boucher. This property, which popular imagination transformed into a reserve of concubines, gave the king a reputation for depravity even though he never set foot(nor any other part of him according to historians) there. The film’s plot as officially outlined for its release is as follows: “Mrs de Dumeval, the Duke of Tesis and the Duke of Wand, exiled libertarians from the puritanical court of Louis XVI, seek support from the legendary Duke of Walchen, a German seducer and free thinker who finds himself lonely in a country ruled by false virtue and hypocrisy. Their mission was not only to export libertarianism and Enlightenment philosophy founded on the rejection of morality and authority to Germany but also to find a safe place to indulge in their roguish games. Will the nuns from the convent next door be drawn into in this wild night where the pursuit of pleasure is no longer subject to any other laws than those dictated by their unfulfilled desires?”

But is this the main point of the narrative challenge presented by Serra’s film? By attempting to represent, to re-stage this astounding departure from morality, historically accurate or not, in the modern era, Albert Serra has produced a piece of art where the absence of figurative restraint represents both anger and a cry of despair with regard to the resurgence of the moral order in almost every sphere of modern social and intellectual life. The end of the film has a power similar to the narrative conclusions of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a filmmaker very different from his Western peers. After two hours of screening, the day finally breaks, the light illuminates the trees and dazzles the leaves under the coldness of the dawn. Suddenly the viewer begins to wonder whether they have really seen the pornographic audacity that still lingers in their memory. This silvery terminal light surrounding the landscape returns the film to the doubts that plague the dreamer upon waking.

Albert Serra’s film, like all of his previous work, represents a major event in the history of cinematographic art. His films are not yet evaluated in terms of the violence that they exert on the gaze or on what the optical unconsciousness, if you will, is capable of accepting as a piece of art. The release date for the film in France is still unknown. However, considering the events during the Cannes Festival, many will want to see Liberté over and over again until they grow weary, giving this incredibly explicit and moral challenge the visibility, it deserves.