Shapeshifting in both form and function, the work of Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra extends far beyond the cinema. A frequent disrupter of the medium’s prescribed models, Serra has long moved fluidly between the screen and the gallery, but his recent work in each field has evinced an increasing interest in the stage-bound dimensions of the theatre that was barely suggested in such early, folksy pastoral films as Honor of the Knights (2006) and Birdsong (2008). Bringing this preoccupation to what seemed a logical endpoint, Serra’s most recent feature, the ravishingly macabre historical drama The Death of Louis XIV (2016), transpires entirely in the bedchamber of the slowly withering French patriarch. If, in light of this progression, it seemed inevitable that Serra would one day try his hand at theatre proper, then Liberté, the director’s first large-scale work for the stage, confirms less a disciplinary reappraisal than a formal reallocation by other means.
Commissioned by Berlin’s Volksbühne (where it’s been added to the theatre’s repertoire programme and will be performed sporadically throughout the summer and into the coming years), Liberté resembles a Serra film in much the same way that his recent film work has betrayed an innate theatricality: ornately drawn and shot through with a sense of feverish inertia, the play approaches history at a forensic level of detail and intimacy, where authenticity approaches abstraction through sheer aesthetic force. Set in 1774 on the eve of the Revolution, Liberté follows a group of French ex-patriots (comprised of an assortment of notable stage and screen performers, as well as a number of first-time actors) on the run in Germany, where they hope to spread a philosophy of moral, political and sexual indulgence. Led by Duchesse de Valselay (Ingrid Caven), this motley crew soon sets up camp in a lakeside clearing where an encounter with the aging German lothario Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger, out of semi-seclusion) will encourage the group in their campaign of carnality, which includes the seduction of sexually curious townsfolk and the recruitment of vestal virgins from the local convent.
With a surplus of erotic energy, Serra stages this nocturnal crusade in methodical strides. Deliberately paced and with little untoward drama across its 140-minute runtime (reportedly cut from well over three hours, and more suggestive than explicit in its current form than Serra had envisioned), the play revels in a kind of suspended historical reality. It’s here that Serra’s time-based approach to narrative seems particularly conducive to the stage, where temporal lines retain an elasticity, being consistently redrawn and understood through the dynamic of live performance. Liberté takes place over the course of what appears to be a handful of nights, with the action transpiring mostly in and around several hand-drawn sedan chairs. Scenes often occur simultaneously as conversations move discreetly from sedan to sedan – though some, like that of Duchesse de Valselay, who is carried aloft around the richly ornamented set, are mobile; while others, such as Duc de Walchen's, remain stationary, with characters entering and exiting the carriage as the story dictates.
This skilful integration of narrative and spatial elements creates a claustrophobic atmosphere belying the play’s outdoors setting (and in formal terms, seems to bridge the interior/exterior dialectic that Serra's feature films have long investigated), while the systematic blocking of action and the actors’ whispered delivery of some rather mellifluous dialogue make for a spellbinding, if inscrutable, viewing experience. In much the same way that Serra’s wilfully modernist approach to history has earned its share of criticism in film circles, so too does Liberté seem in part designed to confront preconceptions related to the theatre – an approach that, judging by the Volksbühne audience’s vocal reprimands (‘louder!’, ‘start acting!’), seemed to please purists none so much. (As an American film critic, I'll cede authority and plead a certain ignorance to the evident pride German viewers take in their country’s storied stage lineage, and in who or what should be allowed to enter that particular conversation. One review of Liberté, published by Deustschlandfunk, one of many newspapers tirelessly campaigning against new Volksbühne director Chris Dercon, went so far as to declare the institution dead. Needless to say, arguments concerning Dercon's initiative to expand the theatre’s art world bona fides are far from over.)
Despite its funereal tone and languid tempo, Liberté does gather an intensity that finds release in choice moments of libidinal abandon, which range from a nude bathing excursion to a moonlit ménage à trois to an extended S&M session. But for the most part, the production maintains a slow-burn tension that one might more readily associate with 18th-century opera, a correlation made literal during the play's true climax, when a black-clad abbess launches into a stirring vocal number, first from the stage and then from a balcony high above the audience – a flourish that sees Serra testing the capacity of this new medium in a manner unavailable to him through cinema. ‘Everything that is liable to change is ephemeral’, reads one of the play's final lines. Liberté finds Serra pushing back against this notion the only way he knows how.
Main image: Albert Serra, Liberté, 2018, performance documentation, Berliner Volksbühne. Photograph: Roman Ynan
Jordan Cronk is a critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs Acropolis Cinema, a screening series for experimental and undistributed films, and is co-director of the Locarno in Los Angeles film festival.