Albert Serra’s Liberté (2019) is set in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Banished from the court of King Louis XVI, a band of errant aristocrats flee to Germany, hoping they will find there a haven to safely practice their libertine philosophies. Across the border, the group makes the acquaintance of Duc de Walchen, who they believe might appreciate their outré tastes and understand the rebellious inclinations which drives them to outsider status among their social set. The libertines’ quest is the pursuit of absolute freedom unencumbered by morality and free from the law.
For two hours and 12 minutes, characters mull around a boggy woodland screwing, torturing others and engaging in the kind of outrageously filthy talk that’d make a whore blush. The aristocrats have parked their carriages for the night and wander about like 18th century pioneers in the British phenomenon of dogging. While the narrative is basic and repetitive, Albert Serra’s sexually explicit drama does trade in a fine sense of irony and genuine intellectual curiosity. It isn’t solely out to commit arthouse shocks and offend for the sake of it.
The debt to the 1970s softcore films of Polish surrealist Walerian Borowczyk is apparent, as is the setup – libertines in pursuit of ultimate thrills – recalling Pier Paolo Pasolini’s extraordinarily bleak Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Serra, however, is no Borowczyk or Pasolini, though his experimental work and interest in this period of history does have its admirers among world cinema enthusiasts. It’s difficult to imagine this getting any kind of release in the UK, mind.
For a good portion of the running time, graphic scenes are kept to a discreet minimum, but Serra relents towards the end and offers vignettes including golden showers and self-mutilation, as well as allusions to coprophilia and bestiality. These characters do not believe in repressing desire and fixate on all sorts of odd fetishes and images, but as Serra shows, their vulgar musings and fantasies of debasing lesser mortals and boasting extraordinary prowess in the sack are ironically contrasted to their actual physical selves. We are shown most of the gang can barely muster a hard-on and the women go unfulfilled. The group cannot function, because their energies are so individually driven. The spirit is willing, boundless and craving all sensation, but the body is a cage.