‘Liberte, la nuit’ is not really a political film, or, at least, a film about politics. Its central figures are an aging revolutionary helping Algerians in the anti-colonial war against France, his separated wife, a dressmaker who gives them guns, and his mistress, a French Algerian emigree. Such a set-up might offer opportunities for allegory – white Algeria returning to the aging bosom of the fatherland, and all that. The film’s most dynamic sequence is pure political thriller, an assassination by the OAS, confusingly shot and edited on grainy stock that evokes both documentary immediacy and the whirring of a surveillance camera, complete with exciting car chase. The human relationships – especially the drawn-out separation of Jean and Mouche, are said to be caused by his political activity, while his contact with others has some basis in his ‘work’. Even, as I say, his final escape with an apolitical menial has political overtones; and their idyll is ultimately no escape from history.
‘Liberte’ is shot in monochrome, a consciously artificial act in the context of 1983, allowing for the artificiality of talk, movement and composition throughout the film. Unlike most contemporary films that use black and white, for its shadowy Expressionist/film noir effect, Garrel privileges gleaming white over murky black. This, together with its concern with dream, memory and the past, connects ‘Liberte’ to another elegiac film about an aging revolutionary living past his moment, Resnais’ ‘La Guerre est finie’ – the gleaming white contributes to the dreamlike effect Garrel gives his static, mostly empty exteriors; near the end, there is an astonishingly beautiful silhouette of a pier and buoys in shadow against a sea that looks like it was lit from underneath. ‘Liberte’ can’t help recall that other famous, and famously banned, French classic about the Algerian War, Godard’s ‘Le Petit Soldat’, another black and white, dialogue-driven film in which political violence mingles with personal dilemmas.
The film is called ‘Liberte, la nuit’, and frames two types of liberty, the struggle for political freedom, and the more personal freedom within relationships (and in the conflict with one’s aging, one’s reputation) against the central scene of Mouche’s assassination. This pattern sees Mouche gravitating unwillingly towards political action, and Jean in the opposite direction. It’s never quite clear what Jean’s precise political activities are – when we first see him he is talking to a friend, their children in the back seat, about a retired film director. When they meet a group of Algerians, Jean could as easily be a drug dealer as a revolutionary – he speaks in a language which is not translated, emphasising the presumed audience’s outsider status and Jean’s sense of belonging or negotiating between two groups. However, this sense of being two seems to make him less of a man – throughout are interspersed sketchy, incomplete pictures that provide a kind of commentary.