'Liberté' Review: A Prolonged Graphic Experience That Overstays Its Welcome [NYFF]

Ever wondered what the nexus of slow cinema and the fetish section of PornHub would look like? For a few thousand people, enter Albert Serra's Liberté. His film of graphic detail following the libidinous exploits of men exiled from the court of the last French monarch provides painstaking details in his documentation of a night-long forest orgy. If you aren't willing to watch people urinate, fornicate and masturbate, don't bother even starting the film.

And even if these elements are in your wheelhouse of toleration, don't expect titillation. Or much feeling at all, to be honest. Unlike a Gaspar Noé film, which leverages similar extremes in sexuality, Serra does not provoke for the purpose of producing a visceral response. Not that something like Irreversible does not also make use of elongated sequences of disturbing sexual  behavior, but Serra uses the prolonged runtime of Liberté to give his audience the space to process the events of the film on an intellectual level. The 132-minute runtime is but a framework in which to examine how their libertinage is not just a purely carnal act but also the exercise of physical power as reaction against their loss of political power.

At a certain point, the orgiastic behavior becomes a desensitizing sight. (And yes, we're supposed to watch – it's frequently difficult to discern that characters are even speaking without a subtitle popping up on screen.) The shock of watching flesh interact with flesh in both hedonistic and masochistic ways wears off at a time. People's mileage will likely vary, but there must come a moment in Liberté where all the sex becomes numbing. In the wake of this bizarre yet intentional sensation, Serra invites contemplation of the unchecked libido left to run wild out of polite society's view.

But at what point does a sexual philosophy supposedly based on enlightenment principles cross a line and simply become pleasure for its own sake? Liberté never quite answers that question, not that Serra sets out to do so. But this simple yet subjective line dividing intellectual pleasures from animalistic ones represents one of the few issues for which Serra does invite contemplation. This idea and provocation simply cannot sustain interest for over two hours. It's one thing to be desensitized by a film and another entirely to just be dull. Past a point in Liberté, this is the latter to an extreme.

Of course, the excess and the profane nature of the licentious acts being committed before our eyes is the content, so why would it not also constitute the form? Sure, that makes sense. In this regard, Serra never holds back, so prepare for close-ups of men stroking their shriveled instruments and women baring themselves to indulge their fanciful kinks. He's able to zoom in and out as necessary, too. Serra feels comfortable portraying the furiousness of rimming as bringing immense satisfaction to the dominant man in the interaction (and perhaps making his audience somewhat uncomfortable in the process). But he can also take a step back from the proceedings and convey just how pathetic and grotesque these lurid exploits appear to anyone with the slightest bit of distance from what's going on.

Yet even in spite of the many variations of erotic expression, gluttony quickly gives way to monotony. Pardon the crass sexual metaphor, but Serra isn't making love with Liberté – he's just masturbating. "No one quite understands the vision we are defending," opines one character at the start of the film before the bacchanalia begins. By the end of Liberté, you won't either.

/Film rating: 5 out of 10