Waste Not: Luis Buñuel Frames Space and Waste in The Phantom of Liberty

K. Brenna Wardell

In 1974, the director and writer Luis Buñuel released The Phantom of Liberty, his second-to-last film in a long career as a scathing critic of bourgeois social, political, and cultural complacency.[1]  In Phantom, Buñuel adds a further critique—blindness and passivity in the face of environmental damage—by developing a trope repeated throughout his films: bourgeois separation from the body, its appetites, and the waste, actual and figurative, produced.  The director does so largely by utilizing Phantom’s mise-en-scène to create uncanny, alienating reversals that pinpoint and attack bourgeois viewpoints about bodies and the natural world and bring viewers face to face with these viewpoints’ damaging results.[2]

The best illustration of this can be found in Phantom’s dinner party scene, located mid-way through the film, in which surprising, estranging images build on the distanciation already provided by the film’s unusual narrative form and startling content.[3]  Leading up to the scene, the narrational focus has shifted to an anthropology professor who is lecturing to a group of unruly police gendarmes on the differences between laws and customs in diverse countries.[4]   The professor gestures to the possibility of a change in western customs, a “general upheaval” as he terms it, whose consequences he characterizes as “unfortunate…even dreadful.”  The professor chooses an example at random to illustrate this, saying, “My wife and I are invited to visit some friends…”; his story then comes to life as the dinner party. 


The scene opens as the professor and his wife, both immaculately dressed, arrive at a beautifully-furnished apartment and are greeted by their host and hostess: the scene is seemingly set for a typical bourgeois dinner party.  They chat genially, and the hostess leads the group to the dining room table, the camera panning to follow her and reveal a dining table ringed not by chairs but toilets, its surface containing magazines and ashtrays rather than plates and glasses.  To the far right of frame, a console table with various decorative items, including a fish tank, can be seen.  Everyone pulls down his/her clothes and sits on a toilet; some of the group smoke, others flip through magazines, but all act as if public defecation were perfectly natural.  Dinner party small talk, such as the discussion of an opera, is exchanged, and then the hostess asks the professor about his recent trip to Spain.  He makes a face in disgust, noting, “We had to come home early. Madrid was filled with the stench of—pardon my language—food.  Really indecent.”  The professor’s reaction enhances the uncanniness of the strangely-arrayed dining table and its toilet-chairs; together, these create a topsy-turvy world in which public defecation and discussion of waste are acceptable, while even the subject of food is taboo.  

On the cue of “indecent,” the camera cuts to the host, who questions the future of the planet given the growth in population and the problem of industrial toxins in the rivers.  As he begins to speak, he is shown in a medium close-up with the fish tank behind him; the camera then tracks back to show the entire party listening intently.  Next, the camera reverses position to focus on the professor, who adds the problem of bodily waste to the discourse; he then encourages the group to guess at current and future amounts of such waste.  As he provides the latter, the hostess exclaims with dismay, and a cut returns the viewer to the lecture, as one of the gendarmes raises his hand for a clarification.  The professor repeats the number, and the scene shifts back to the party.  The professor then gestures with his hand to the fish tank to illustrate the problem of increased toxic waste within a stable, limited space and asks the guests to imagine what would happen if they peed in it every day.  From a medium-full shot that hovers over the fish tank to focus on the professor and hostess, taking in the backs of the host and a guest, the camera suddenly moves up and back to settle in a new position: the characters, now opaque shapes, are pictured through the fish tank, which dominates the frame’s foreground. 


A momentary silence is broken by the sound of flushing, and the hostess’s daughter says she is hungry.  Her mother chastises her for her language, as the professor rises from his toilet and whispers an inquiry to the maid regarding the location of the “dining room.”  The professor proceeds to a small, bathroom-sized room and takes a tray of food from a dumbwaiter.  With obvious pleasure, he tears into the food with his hands and teeth.  Another guest tries the door, he yells, “It’s occupied,” and she departs.  The scene shifts from the party to the professor’s lecture to the gendarmes; the latter then depart, the camera following them into the next scene.

As this summary reveals, the dinner party’s alienating mise-en-scène reversals begin with the image of the dining table and its chairs-turned-toilets, which set up a carnivalesque universe of public shitting and private dining that foregrounds bodies and their waste.  The most profound use of mise-en-scène in terms of the director’s environmental critique, however, appears in Buñuel’s utilization of the fish tank and his subtle, yet evocative, composition and framing; together, these transform the tank into a symbol of the costs of environmental damage and public inaction. 

The significance of the tank in Buñuel’s critique can be tracked through the shifts in its position and meaning within the scene: from the initial treatment of it as simply a background element, to the end of the waste discourse, at which point it is literally and figuratively central—filling the frame and dominating the discussion.  Not only does the tank take up more of the frame as it becomes pivotal to the discourse and Buñuel’s critique of the bourgeoisie, but the placement of the characters in regard to the tank also transforms, so much so that by the discussion’s conclusion they are placed within it, actually and symbolically. 

As the host begins the waste conversation, he is shown in the center of the frame with the tank behind his head; here, the tank blends into the set as just another item in a well-to-do person’s home.  As the discussion continues, the camera shifts position to take in the faces of the other characters, particularly the professor—who dominates the discourse.  Yet in the final moments before the conversation moves on, Buñuel returns the focus, visually and thematically, to the tank and its fish by placing it in the foreground and shooting the characters through it: a composition and framing unlike any of the preceding images.  Because of this overt shift, the viewer cannot help but pay attention to not only what has been said about waste, but to the inaction of the characters, who quickly drop this discussion and move on to other subjects. 

The fresh perspective provided by this new view of the tank and the characters allows Buñuel to make multiple arguments about environmental damage and bourgeois passivity.  For instance, by framing the characters within the tank, Buñuel argues that they, like the vulnerable fish, are subject to whatever changes, positive or negative, are made to their space.  That the characters, like the fish, may be endangered by waste creates an even greater sense of irony when the characters simply go on with their party.  Despite the call to address waste, foregrounded by the tank’s increasing presence in the scene, their discussion seems restricted by the limitations—the frame, as it were—of (bourgeois) discourse.[5]   This theme of containment, developed through the mise-en-scène, speaks to not only the fish themselves, constrained by the tank and its conditions, and the characters, contained, at least for a moment, within the fish tank, but to humans in general, positioned inescapably within the larger “fish tank” of the earth and its limited resources.  

Through careful use of the tank in the mise-en-scène, Buñuel not only outlines the stakes of waste and hints at his characters’ passivity to it, but implicates them in the damaging results.  That the director positions the tank behind the host as the waste discourse begins, for example, intimates that it is connected to this discourse and its costs.  By tracking away from the host and the tank and reframing the shot to take in the other characters, Buñuel includes them in the discourse while implying that they too are responsible for the damage: an argument reiterated at the end of the discourse when all the characters are pictured together within the tank, their faces clouded by the presence of the water—and waste—within the tank. 

Through his manipulation of mise-en-scène, Buñuel argues that bourgeois culture, its subjects alienated from their labor and obsessed with material consumption and social mores, is emotionally, intellectually, and physically distant from nature.  Blind to the damage they cause themselves, Buñuel’s bourgeois characters also ignore the damage they cause each other and the nature they deny.  Buñuel’s bourgeoisie are seemingly caught in a double bind—disavowing nature for culture, yet constantly reminded that the two are inextricably linked, even as they push such knowledge aside. 

While Buñuel’s critique of environmental damage and passivity through mise-en-scène is focused on his characters, his use of the fish tank allows him to extend an element of critique, and the call to do something about it, to the film’s viewer—the voyeur who is enjoying this spectacle.  If the characters are blind to the manner in which they are constrained by the tank and the rigid frame of their own mores, the viewer is not; instead, through Buñuel’s use of mise-en-scène, the viewer may become aware of multiple frames at work in Phantom: not simply the fish tank, but the larger frame of the cinema screen in which all the film’s characters, human and nonhuman, are contained.  Buñuel challenges the viewer to move beyond the characters’ containment and passivity; yet at the same time, Buñuel’s focus on frames, literal and figurative, implies that even though the viewer may feel free of the frames that restrain the characters, there are larger, if invisible, frames that surround the viewer: the frames of convention and bourgeois social, political, and cultural institutions.

Through Buñuel’s use of mise-en-scène in Phantom, the director explores the self-interest, conformity, and waste—both actual and spiritual—at the heart of “civilized” human society, critiquing that society and seeking to change it.  This effort for change and the manner in which Buñuel approaches it make the director and his work instructive in light of the current environmental crisis.  Phantom foreshadows the difficulty of alerting an often-indifferent public to damage and injustice, whether social, political, or ecological. Yet the film also contains a technique for addressing this passivity, at least in cinematic terms—those uncanny, alienating reversals: from the chairs-turned-toilets to the fish tank that is transformed via composition and framing from simple décor to potent symbol of environmental damage.  Through his use of these reversals, and his utilization of mise-en-scène as a whole, Buñuel shows filmmakers and viewers a way to, if only momentarily, transform the world. 


K. Brenna Wardell is an instructor in the English Department at the University of Alabama.  Her research interests include gender and sexuality, film studies, media aesthetics, and dramatic literature.  She has presented conference papers at the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Console-ing Passions, and the biennial meeting of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.  Her article “’Almost a Golden Glow around It’: the Filmic Nostalgia of Walt Disney’s Pollyanna (1960)” will appear in Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna: A Children’s Classic at 100, published by the University Press of Mississippi.

1. In his autobiography My Last Breath, Buñuel notes that the film’s title was “invented in homage to Karl Marx, to that ‘A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism’ at the beginning of the Manifesto” (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 249. 

2. In discussing the uncanny in The Films of Luis Buñuel, scholar Peter William Evans cites Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny, which Freud defines as “‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 81.

3. Phantom’s narrative consists of seemingly unconnected incidents linked by a daisy chain structure in which characters shift from minor roles in one scene, to primary characters in the following scene.  Its content contains frequent references to taboo social, sexual, and religious acts, from incest and sado-masochism to sacrilege and murder.

4. The scene just before the dinner party scene is listed as scene 11 of 22 in the Criterion Collection DVD menu, in which it is titled “Law and misdemeanor.”  The dinner party is listed as scene 12 and titled “A general upheaval.”

5. In addition to the manner in which Buñuel emphasizes the passivity of his characters through the mise-en-scène and through their dialogue, as they bring up the subject of waste only to then drop it, so too there is the manner in which the characters within the dinner party scene and the gendarmes, for whose benefit this story is being told, focus only on the numbers quoted rather than confronting the nature of the problem and a course of action.  Certainly, the numbers that the host and professor provide are, indeed, staggering, and the other characters in the dinner party scene react with shock, yet only a few beats later the conversation has shifted.  Similarly, when the action moves momentarily back to the gendarmes, one asks for a clarification of a number, but nothing more.  By having his characters focus on numbers rather than those numbers’ context and a potential solution to this damage, Buñuel emphasizes that neither the characters in the dinner party scene nor the gendarmes have learned anything profound; it also seems certain that they will not act on this information in any way.