261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

El àngel exterminador

Must See

“People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”–Luis Buñuel , “My Last Sigh”

“The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”–Opening epigram to The Exterminating Angel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rambal, , , Lucy Gallardo, Augusto Benedico

PLOT: After an elaborate dinner, the many guests of Edmundo Nobile find themselves trapped inside a single room of the mansion; at first they stay under reasonable pretenses, but after sleeping over they become physically unable to pass the room’s threshold. As their high society ways break down from the proximity and lack of provisions, concerned police and citizens on the outside find it impossible to enter to help them. Things degenerate until they attempt a desperate gambit relying on a vision of one of the guests. Meanwhile, sheep and a bear wander around the house.

Still from The Exterminating Angel (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • After briefly returning to his native Spain from his Mexican exile to direct Viridiana, Buñuel went back to Mexico to make The Exterminating Angel after the Vatican denounced the previous film and the Spanish banned it.
  •   Buñuel borrowed the title from a poet friend (José Bergamín) ostensibly for marketing purposes, remarking in his biography, “If I saw ‘The Exterminating Angel‘ on a marquee, I’d go see it on the spot.”
  • Despite its acclaim (both contemporaneous and otherwise), Buñuel often said he considered The Exterminating Angel a failure. Mostly, he regretted not being able to proceed along a more “cannibalistic” trajectory.
  • The dozens of repetitions found in the film greatly worried the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, when he saw the final cut. It took Buñuel to calm him down, assuring Figueroa that it was a creative choice.
  • Won a “FIPRESCI” award at Cannes on its release.
  • While Russia at the time banned any number of films for any number of reasons, ironically, this Marxist movie rubbed Soviet officials the wrong way because the theme—not being able to leave a party—was considered anti-government.
  • The Exterminating Angel is a staple of “top films ever made” lists, including The New York Times‘ Best 1000 Movies Ever Made and Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
  • Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works. British composer Thomas Adès recently adapted the movie into an opera.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Throughout The Exterminating Angel, the household’s domesticated (pet) bear herds a small clutch of sheep. Wandering around the place with impunity, a shot where the demi-flock scoot up the grand stairway, with the bear taking up the rear, sticks in the mind. The guests’ doom is mirrored by the sheep’s mindless wandering toward the great prison room, ensuring their barbaric destruction.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dead man’s hand; symbolic tasty sheep; a sacrificial host

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A gaggle of bourgeois personages spend more and more time in close quarters with each other—they simply cannot leave the room. The strangeness of their prison is matched by the strangeness found outside: a society that at first doesn’t notice their absence, and then is unable to help them. Time skips like a scratched record, servants are uncannily eager to jump ship, a disembodied hand appears, and animal friends romp around a mansion, adding up to a fine Buñuelian omelet of social commentary and Surrealist comedy.

COMMENTS: Between his genre-establishing Un Chien Andalou up through his late classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie, Luis Buñuel spent his decades in exile from Francoist Spain visiting and revisiting the same themes: religion, subservience, and the sheer madness of the human condition (particularly the “cultured” sort). Midway through his career he unleashed The Exterminating Angel unto both his fans and detractors. Combining elements both blunt and subtle, he rakes high society over the coals, presenting them as pointless, petty, and altogether more human than they’d ever care to have suggested. By trapping a gang of them into one room for days (weeks?) on end, Buñuel makes it clear that no matter the layers of formal clothes, formal background, and formal conversation, it takes nothing more than a little confinement for otherwise civilized people to shed their pretenses and revert to their original, brutish form.

After an ascent to Heaven, there follows a rapid descent into Hell. The master of a grand house, Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal), invites the great and good of society over for a lavish dinner (replete with an ice swan chilling caviar). It goes so incredibly well that the reveling goes straight through the night. Unable to muster the will to leave, decorum slowly collapses. Sleeping on chairs, sofas, and the floor, the guests stay through dawn, waking the next morning regretting their “unseemly” behavior. Their concern about faux pas quickly becomes outright worry when, alone or in groups, they find they cannot pass under the lintel to the adjoining dining room. The ever-professional majordomo, Julio (Claudio Brooks), starts out free, but his sense of duty traps him when he brings in coffee and leftovers to feed the lingering visitors. Few keep their cool, with only the host, his wife (Lucy Gallardo), and Doctor Conde (Augusto Benedico) striving to maintain order. Fatigue, hunger, and thirst set in as the hapless partiers shuffle around the salon.

Even beyond the weird punishment that befalls the characters, there are glimmers of further oddities. Early in the film, it is made clear that three of the attendees are Freemasons, at least one of whom seems to be aware that something horribly amiss is going to happen. Then there is the bizarre series of encounters between a local nobleman and a dignitary who has been residing in the United States. When first introduced, they barely exchange pleasantries; during the fast-following second greeting, they meet up like old friends; and finally, they make no effort to conceal mutual hostility when, for the third time, they meet each other for the first time.

This echoing of situations happens throughout, from the twice-entering guests, to the doctor’s predictions of baldness first for a sick guest, then a second, dying guest. Most dramatically we, along with a febrile woman, witness the emergence of a disembodied hand. Explainable in the first instance (the hand’s dead body was stuffed in a closet and the door crept open), it is less so when the woman wakes in the middle of a fever-dream to an uninhabited room with the prowling paw zipping about until she attempts to stab it; waking, we find she has almost knifed another guest’s hand. This theme of repetition is essential to the psychological breakthrough that ultimately saves the assemblage: repetition locked them in the room, and they need to use the same key to unlock it.

Indulging in his favorite pastime, Buñuel directs a tight hour and a half deconstructing upper class society by condemning them to the Sartrearian quip, “Hell is being locked forever in a room with your friends.” With The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel provides a post-war counterpoint to Renoir’s (exquisite) The Rules of the Game. Both tackle bourgeois hypocrisy and frivolity, but the later film does so using a much harsher light. With Franco fully in control of Spain and the Cold War conflict dominating the rest of the world, it wasn’t the time for a light-hearted romp, but time for a “collapse of manners” more than a “comedy of manners.” Though the dénouement provides considerable relief, nothing that’s Buñuel can end well. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at a cathedral mass in the final scene, we see the survivors of The Exterminating Angel, only to have something very strange happen—the Church, it seems, would do well to learn the dangers of mindless repetition.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unusual offbeater could be pegged a parable, social satire as a dream film. It has power and solidity.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“[Buñuel] whips up individual turmoils with the apt intensities of a uniformly able cast; and he throws in frequent surrealistic touches, such as a disembodied hand coasting across the floor, or a bear and a flock of sheep coming up from the kitchen, to give the viewer little hints of mental incongruities. But my feeling is that his canvas is too narrow and his social comment too plain to keep our interest fixed upon his people and their barren stewing for an hour and a half.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (1967 screening)

“…you’re not quite sure what it’s about on an intellectual level, but instinctively, you feel that you’ve seen something profound and amazing, not to mention savagely funny and tremendously entertaining… If the film defies rational explanation, that is obviously Bunuel’s intention, and its mystery only adds to its power and beauty.”–TV Guide

IMDB LINK: The Exterminating Angel (1962)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Exterminating Angel (1962) – The Criterion Collection page, with the trailer and links to a Silvia Pinal interview and essays on the film

The Exterminating Angel (1967) – Overview – Turner Classic Movie’s Exterminating Angel page has three film clips, the trailer, and an essay by Jeff Stafford (the dating error is in the original)

The Exterminating Angel Movie Review (1968) – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series (again, the dating error is in the original)

The Castaways of Providence Street: On Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel – Excellent essay by Maraid Phillips for Senses of Cinema examining Buñuel’s world through The Exterminating Angel

Film Citation – An intriguing collection of links and archived documents about Exterminating Angel from Cal-Berkeley’s film archives

LIST CANDIDATE: THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962) – Otto Black’s original List Candidate review for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

My Last Sigh – Buñuel discusses this film, among his others, in his autobiography

DVD INFO: Once again the people at Criterion do their job well. Included on the Blu-ray disc is the standard trailer—which, without context, is more incoherent than most trailers from the era. In addition, there are a couple of interviews of those involved with the film as well as a recent(-ish) documentary titled, The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel, which chronicles the life and work of the filmmaker. Tucked inside the packaging rests a long essay and a Buñuel interview. Naturally the sound and video look good for a movie of its age, but no better than we’ve come to expect from the Criterion crew.

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