The Exterminating Angel

Still from The Exterminating Angel (1962)
The Exterminating Angel [1962] After an upper-class dinner party, the aristocrats in attendance mysteriously find themselves unable to leave. No physical barrier exists between the guests and the outside world, and yet they cannot bring themselves to walk through the doorway. Isolated from the outside world, they become more desperate and barbaric, turning on each other as their situation becomes direr.

Yet another Time in Mexico. Director Luis Buñuel, previously exiled to Mexico, was invited back to fascist Spain by General Franco himself and given creative freedom to make a film of his choice. The resulting work, Viridiana, was a critical success but was heavily censored by the same regime that had offered him creative freedom in the first place. Allegedly, the work was blasphemous and offended the conservative attitudes of the dictatorship. After his brief respite, a frustrated Buñuel returned to Mexico and made one of his finest films, The Exterminating Angel, exercising complete creative control. Buñuel’s distaste for the ruling class that shunned him is apparent in the film. Once they are separated from the outside world, their pretenses of superiority come to nothing. Presented with a problem that does not answer to any logic, they become violent, proposing sacrifices as a solution to their problem. When presented with danger, the upper-class show themselves to have little moral character, which contrasts the orderly exteriors they present to impress their peers.

High-Concept. Buñuel takes an idea that would be interesting enough as a strange thriller, but elaborates on the idea, examining each of its possibilities. A typical approach to the premise ‘people trapped in a room for an unknown reason’ might feature a single hero trying desperately to solve the problem and save everyone, but Buñuel doesn’t waste his time on dalliances such as finding an explanation for everything. However, he makes absolutely sure that the audience can understand the nature of the guests’ plight through his careful direction. Things at the party seem a little wrong from the beginning, as the staff flees the premises, and the host plans a show involving sheep and a bear… but it’s a Buñuel film! So everything is comparatively normal so far. In the evening, guests opt to stay overnight rather than leave. That’s a bit rude, I guess, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Buñuel is slowly introducing the surreal elements of his film to the audience, building up to when the guests would eventually rather die than leave the room. The slow introduction of the absurd situation serves a double purpose: it gradually grows on the audience rather than having a grand announcement, making the situation seem more plausible. Wisely, this also increases the audience's own claustrophobia, their own sense of being trapped in the room themselves, as they empathize with the guests, learning things at the same pace as the characters do. The realization of the horror is more intense, as the audience feels them in the room, unable to escape. Contrast this with Buñuel films such as The Phantom of Liberty, which makes no attempts to placate the audience, alienating them from any of the characters they encounter. A scene set outside the manor shows that attempts to enter the house are being thwarted in a similar way is the closest the film comes to a misstep, as we are given a release from the claustrophobia of the room.

Stranded and Scared. So, with the premise expertly established, the captive audience is left with little choice but to dwell with the guests and try to make sense of things with them. What is Buñuel trying to tell us? Perhaps there are criticisms of the ruling class and of religion, but the opening titles say it best: “from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation”. The lack of logic in the room can’t solely be reduced to any political commentary. Instead, things may not make sense because insensibility is disturbing. Buñuel was a renegade, who didn’t just want to entertain audiences, but also shock them. The Exterminating Angel is meant to be experienced, not reasoned with.

Absurd and terrifying, The Exterminating Angel is an accessible introduction to Buñuel’s work as a whole, and a masterpiece in itself.

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