The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)

One concept that’s been done to death by movies is how each of us has that inner instinct for utmost survival at anybody or anything’s cost, and how man’s inhumanity towards man can be coaxed out of just about anybody given even the most remotely fantastic situation.  Recently I watched “The Mist,” based on the Stephen King story.  It’s a movie I liked for its thrills, but also one who’s message about how we can be more monstrous than those man-eating flies and praying mantises outside the grocery store is so blunt and matter-of-fact that it was pretty damn silly.  One night everyone’s working together to fend off other-dimensional monsters, the next they’re all religious zealots begging for expiation, as if Frank Darabont’s pulling out every stop imaginable to splash the point of man’s natural monstrousness right in your face.  Give me a fucking break.  But now rewind 45 years to “The Exterminating Angel”, and you have a very similar, very simple premise: a bunch of people trapped in a confined space, gradually turning on each other.  This time, though, the people are upperclass, hoity-toity party guests, the place is a very nice mansion set up for a dinner party, and the force keeping them in this place is….what?  I don’t know, they don’t know, nobody’s supposed to know.  The door’s right there, but they just have this intangible inability to leave the party, and in turn their potential rescuers have this intangible inability to enter the house that’s just sitting right in front of them.  It’s a concept completely outlandish, with sights and situations completely ridiculous, and yet, it feels real.  There’s something incredibly believable in such an unbelievable premise of a mentally-placed force field that’s not there, and also something frightening, funny, and all-too telling of Buñuel’s clearly less-than-favorable view of the upper class.  “The Exterminating Angel” is sometimes funny, sometimes dead-serious, always strange, culminating in a wickedly sharp satire.

I really liked how this inexplicable inability to leave the house is never directly addressed at first, and more importantly isn’t noticed in the least by those affected.  The first thing we see when the movie starts is the servants (the lower class) leaving, that huge iron gate banging shut behind them, as if locking the upper class in their lavish ways and their inescapable lifestyle.  At first, we see these people eating dinner and chit-chatting about this and that, not unlike the long beginning party scene in “Fanny and Alexander.”  That long segment so expertly established characters and relationships through simple dialogue, and in a way the party of “The Exterminating Angel” does the same thing.  But while the party of “Fanny and Alexander” was filled with joy and cheer, “The Exterminating Angel”‘s party guests, from my point of view, were about as trivial as anybody could be.  Maybe it was just the bad subtitles I had to sit through, but I can’t for the life of me remember anything of substance that anybody talked about at that party.  Watching this, I really felt like Ben Braddock of “The Graduate,” walking among such empty people, being commended for empty accomplishments by people affluent from a monetary sense, but deoid of substantial meaning in their lives otherwise.  There were empty introductions and empty conversations that led nowhere, even the flirting between dancers and an outright kiss made the sexual undertones surprisingly devoid of life.  Strange sights like the little bear and the goats meant for after-dinner entertainment, and the dead chicken that’s in the woman’s purse for god knows what reason, give the whole affair that tiny little Buñuel-esque undertone of something being off-kilter at an otherwise normal (lifeless) party.  And then things get really weird, but still in a subversive way.  People try to leave, but make excuses not to.  Some decide to wait for others, or say they’re too tired, or this excuse or that excuse, and the way Buñuel introduces this little phenomenon is absoulutely genius.  The party guests dismiss it as a “normal” compulsion to stay, to linger, and eventually to even pass out on the furniture, and even I dismissed it as nothing unusual, even though it’s clearly not appropriate behavior for a dinner party.  Look, we’ve all been to that boring dinner party where we’ve tried making excuse after excuse to leave, but just can’t.  Really, is the situation here any different?  Buñuel doesn’t comment on the behavior in any way, just shows the evolution of this compulsion to stay in the house from the bottom-up, and for that reason it’s incredibly insidious, and all the more disturbing.

Of course, it’s when our guests realize that they’re somehow unwilling and unable to leave that “The Exterminating Angel” enters the territory of pure satire and utter ridiculousness.  As the crowded and increasingly curious sidewalk, and even the entryway to the next room sit tantalizingly near, our guests simply stand before some invisible forcefield of the mind, never crossing it as if their very lives are at stake.  It’s a sight that’s completely ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as that bear wandering around the house they guests don’t dare enter, as if teasing them.  Naturally there’s the standard finger-pointing and increased paranoia you’d expect out of a set-up like this, culminating with a mob-mentality to take out the kindly party host and the even kindlier doctor, the only two people “against” the mob.  True, given movies like “The Mist” today, that mob mentality in a confined space isn’t exactly an original movie concept anymore, but in this case I think it’s more than original, just because of the absolutely bizarre reason why these people are “trapped” in this room.  Of course, this whole unable to leave mess is a representation of the lifelessness and the utter futility that is the upper-class lifestyle…quite an obvious symbol, but one that’s definitely creative.  And that hidden, not exactly outward, creativity makes “The Exterminating Angel” so great.  This is my second exposure to Luis Buñuel, the first being the short “Un Chien Andalou” from the 1920s, utterly bizarre from a visual standpoint.  “The Exterminating Angel” is just as bizarre, but mostly conceptually rather than visually.  Of course there are sights and sounds of the bizarre, like the delusional woman seeing the crawling hand in the middle of the night or the people burning furniture to cook the goats that wander into their makeshift prison cell, but even something as bizarre as a crawling hand is so incredibly real to us because Buñuel doesn’t show it to us as an illusion – it’s just a woman seeing a crawling hand, until both she and we are suddenly jettisoned from the illusion.  Yes, this is a satire criticizing upper-class lifestyle, but it’s not so incredibly one-sided to the point of being propaganda, because we see things from these peoples’ points of view too…we might as well be in there with them.  As crazy as it is that nobody will leave because they just…can’t, the amount of realism used in showing this plight surprised me.  What would you do, realistically, if you simply couldn’t leave a place for some unknown reason?  From the breaking of the pipes in the walls to get drinking water to the suicide pact between the two lovers to hiding the morphine to figuring out what to do with the dead body, I think Buñuel’s depiction of all these interconnected plot lines and characters is surprisingly real, and effective at that.

But clearly, this is first and foremost a satire, and that shows too.  None of these people know why they can’t leave, but we have an idea.  It makes sense, then, that when things seem at their direst, they come up with the bright idea of going through the motions of the party nights before, step by step, with the hopes of maybe being able to leave by returning to what for them is normalcy.  These snobs and bourgeoisie are so thoroughly ensconced in their empty lives of parties, idle chatter, and looking down on their servants or anybody less fortunate, that if anything were to disrupt that, they become more animal-like than the goats and bear that roam freely in the next room.  They need those empty motions that they’ve grown so mind-numbingly accustomed to day after day to get by.  Otherwise, their deepest instincts and that pack mentality take over (god forbid 😛 ).  They’re so completely separate from those “commoners” outside the house, mainly in terms of class-based misunderstandings.  Ironic, isn’t it, that they need those barren lifestyles to leave a physical prison, but it’s those same lifestyles that completely and utterly lock them into an emotional one?

9/10

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2 comments so far

  1. ShotgunAndy on

    Bunuel is the man! 😀

  2. Yasuko Gahring on

    Great information 🙂


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