A man in a white wig and 18th century costume lifting up the skirt of a woman who is facing away. She is waring a similar wig. The image is a cropped version of a film still of Théodora Marcadé and Marc Susini in Albert Serra's LIBERTE. Original image Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Talking about it and doing it in Liberté

Sex in art needs no excuses, part 4

by AK Krajewska

This is the last post in the sex in art series. It builds on points I've made before. If you haven't read the other posts in the series yet, you might want to start with Sex in art needs no excuses.

I find it almost impossible to write about Liberté (2019). When I review any work of art, I try to do so from the inside. That is, I try to understand the intent of the work, the from it fits into or creates, and the tradition it fits into or departs from. To put it simply, I try to evaluate how well the art accomplishes what it sets out to do within its context. When a film is so far outside familiar contexts, like Albert Serra's 2019 film, Liberté, I have no easy ways to even talk about it, because there is no obvious critical frames, no obvious checklist of things it did right or wrong.

It would be easy to write a dismissive review about all the things the film doesn't do that you'd normally expect a film to do. It would be particularly easy to use its almost exclusive focus on sex as an excuse to throw it in the bin of unwatchable trash with no artistic merit[1].

As a film, I think it creates a new category and to evaluate it, and possibly even to enjoy it, you have to discover it by experience[2]. Let me start then, with the obvious.

Liberté, on the surface #

A group of dudes in pre-revolutionary France have been kicked out of the French royal court for being unmitigated pervs. They travel to a forest where they meet up with a German noble who is a fellow libertine and try to convince him to help them out or join them in their forest frolic. I think there are four nobles and their four valets, but with the wigs, it's a little hard to follow.

The entire movie takes place in the forest over the course of a single night.

Marc Susini in Liberté by director Albert Serra

Marc Susini in Liberté (2019) by director Albert Serra. Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

The libertines talk at length about their sexual fantasies with each other. Then they attempt to arrange to make their fantasies happen, and to some extent they succeed. They arrange to have some women brought to the forest and they also talk to the women at length about what they want and try to get the women to open up about their fantasies. The film is very slow-paced. The kinds of discussion, planning, and awkward pauses that must be edited out of ordinary pornographic films trying to portray enacting sexual fantasy as seamless are instead all retained.

In terms of what the fantasies are, well, imagine what if 120 Days of Sodom but consensual? Since a lot of what's so upsetting about 120 Days of Sodom is the rape, murder, and all around lack of consent, it's a rather different mood, though.

As the film progresses there is less and less talking and more--not actually fucking--enacting of highly specific fantasies. Considering how outrageous some of the fantasies are, the film is strangely tender. It reminded me a bit of Samuel R. Delany's erotic novel, The Mad Man, which also depicts a lot of fringe sex acts in a tender way.

A bit dazed, but somehow satisfied #

After I first watched Liberté, I felt at a loss for what to make for it, but I knew I enjoyed it. I wasn't even entirely sure what happened on the surface level. Did people die or did I just imagine that? Where did the women come from? Where they actually nuns the male libertines kidnapped or just noble women who had been stashed away in a nunnery for safekeeping who escaped? How many libertines were there in the end? Parts were very funny, and other parts were beautiful, and all of it was mesmerizingly strange yet, somehow familiar.

I don't mind not being able to make literal sense out of a film or other work of art. Not everything needs to make sense that way. But I did want to make sense of my own feelings about it.

That feeling of being somewhat dazed, somewhat confused about what to make of it all, turns out to have been part of the director's intent. In an interview in the film's press kit[3] Albert Serra articulates some of his artistic vision:

"This is what I was aiming for, that the film would physically impact the viewer and produce the type of stunned state you can be in when you walk out of a nightclub in the early hours of the morning. A mental film, where you can no longer distinguish what you’ve seen from what you’ve heard or what you’ve imagined."

The gap between desire and its embodiment #

To me, the most real and poignant thing about Liberté is the way it shows the gap between sexual fantasy and sexual reality. The libertines are driven by a double desire to imagine the most outrageous sexual pleasures, and then to try to enact them. When they try to explain what they want to each other, the conversation is sometimes comical. Then again, daring to speak one's desire, especially when it's non-standard, is more than most people can do.

When the libertines do manage to arrange the scenes they had described to happen in reality, things are awkward, messy, and rely on improvisational tactics to get the feeling they were going for. For example, if I recall correctly, there is a scene where they were trying to have some kind of extreme bukake, but finding they run out of emissions, use buckets of milk. It's hard to say if that's silly, gross, or actually hot to the characters in the scene.

The situation in the film is extreme, but it portrays something that I think happens in more usual sexual intimacy. When we speak about desires frankly, they are bound to sound a little silly. And the physical reality of sexual intimacy is always messier, sillier, and more improvisational than fantasy. There is always the gap. Which, I suppose, can also serve as a metaphor for sexual intimacy itself, where we try to be as close as possible to another person, but never can unite entirely.

In the film, talking about sex is an also erotic act. The act of speaking becomes an attempt to bridge that chasm between the imagined fantasy and the awkward forest orgy:

"Let me describe a scene that would be most pleasurable for me [...] Can you imagine the scene?" - Liberté

Despite the impossibility of achieving their perfect libertinage, the characters in Liberté keep trying. Words, which are never quite enough, that dangerous supplement, attempt to connect one person's imagination and desire to another's, or at least they try.

That dangerous supplement #

I don't claim that this is what Liberté is all about or is really about. I just hope that by walking through and unpicking some of my impressions and ideas as a result of this movie, which really is a slow-paced weird orgy in a forest, I've demonstrated something of the unique value of works of art that focus on sex and sexuality.

And with this weirdest of the three films I originally set to out to discuss in just one post, I conclude this series. I'm sure I'll write about weird art and weird sex and weird sex art again, but I'll probably take a break and write about some other things next week.

  1. It is also too weird and slow-paced to serve as pornography in the usual sense. Considering how long I've spent thinking about it, I suppose it could be accused of inducing mental masturbation, at least in my case. ↩︎

  2. Which is kind of like your own sexuality, which you also can only discover through experience. ↩︎

  3. The press kit is available from Cinema Guild. ↩︎