TIFF review: Liberte

Director Albert Serra sends his audience into the woods with a group of horny 18th-century Sadeian aristocrats that includes Helmut Berger

LIBERTÉ WAVE D: Albert Serra. France/Spain/Portugal/Germany. 132 minutes. Sep 10, 9:15 pm, TIFF 4 Sep 14, 9 pm, AGO. Rating: NNNN

How can you tell if someone might be interested in joining you for a heavy night of pee play, BDSM and all-around voyeurism in the woods? If they seem unfazed whilst taking in a horrific and prolonged public quartering in 18th-century France.

Albert Serra’s follow-up to his cult film The Death Of Louis XIV begins with the Duc du Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) recounting just such an anecdote, which sets an intense but also philosophical tone for a planned night of exploratory sex among a group of exiled aristocrats that includes the Duc du Wachen (arthouse legend Helmut Berger), a Prussian interested in learning the Sadeian ways of the French.

After some brief insinuations of a plot, Liberté lives up to its title and dispenses with structure as we spend the better part of two hours and 12 minutes watching a dozen-odd bewigged men and women cruise, hump, whip and piss on each other. What’s shocking about Liberté is that its documentary-like images are actually more banal given that breaking taboos, extreme porn imagery and trolling have been par for the course for a while now.

Serra, who adapted the film from his own stage play, compellingly uses mise en scène – a vivid nocturnal forest full of chirping insects – to provide a disarmingly serene contrast to action that is sometimes partially blocked from view, cast in shadow or audibly happening off screen. Given what we do see is often graphic, the effect pushes the audience to imagine even greater extremes, though the Duc du Wand occasionally interjects to helpfully describe a few ridiculously over-the-top scenarios for those who might be at a loss.

What does read as subversive by today’s standards is the way Liberté’s portrayal of cruising erases social barriers – i.e. age, class, sexual orientation, disability, hang-ups on idealized physical body types – to ironically suggest that if we want something resembling sexual democracy in our age of taboo-busting liberalism we can always return to the woods.

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