The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Mexico

3.5*
Director:
Luis Buñuel
Screenwriter:
Luis Buñuel
Director of Photography:
Gabriel Figueroa
Running time: 88 minutes

Original title: El ángel exterminador

The Exterminating Angel demonstrates how elusive explanations for human behaviour can be, and while we can often feel confident that rationalisation will eventually win out, or that time will tell why people behave the way they do, it’s not quite as simple as that. It is true that people have their reasons, but these reasons may be obscured by so many other factors that an explanation, though it may seem just beyond our reach, could in fact be forever out of reach.

The film is surreal, which means the pieces don’t quite fit together unless you allow for the loose traits of a dream. However, unlike more avant-garde works such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, this film by Luis Buñuel has a general plot outline that can very easily be summarised.

At the house of a rich couple, their servants all decide to leave one night just as a whole host of guests arrive for a dinner party. They do so with their own very obviously made-up reasons, but it’s not made clear what their real intentions are. Only the majordomo remains. At the end of the evening, after many backstabbing bits of gossip between them, some drinks and a piece played on the piano, the guests prepare to leave, but then they realise they cannot bring themselves to do so.

They end up spending many days in the house, mostly inside one room, where their once mannered behaviour lapses and they descend to a level of basic needs and uncivilised outbursts, though the actual occurrence of some incidents is brought into question by the presentation of the material in the film.

The first shot of the film shows the name of the street on which this mansion is situated: Calle de la providencia (Providence Street). And the last shot in the film is of the exterior of a cathedral. The role of religion in the film is very oblique , although the title obviously has that connotation. The most straightforward connecting tissue would be the issue of free will and predestination, but Buñuel doesn’t make these themes explicit in any real way.

The easiest solution to the film lies in its inception. Having just left Spain after the controversy sparked by his Viridiana, and suffering under the rule of General Franco, Buñuel returned to Mexico to make this film, and it presents no obstacle to being interpreted as a demonstration of what happens to a group of people cut off from the rest of civilisation, left to fend for themselves in a small space and unable to leave.

The metaphor is problematic, especially because so many of the possible escape routes we think of never get tested, or the film discards them as soon as they are raised, for the example the possibility of pushing someone across the invisible but apparently insurmountable threshold inside the house.

“Life is amusing… and strange,” says one guest shortly after she realises she will be stuck against her will. At first, it seems it is the good manners of the guests that imprison them, as they are all too embarrassed to admit they want to leave, and simultaneously the hosts feel they cannot ask their guests to leave. But this explanation also unravels somewhat once the guests make it clear they truly want to go home. Unfortunately, the situation is summed up very explicitly in a laughable bit of dialogue by the character of the doctor, when he states that “no matter how hard we try, we cannot leave this room.”

One man dies, and two people commit suicide, and while the bodies rot and the stench drifts into the room, people are literally passing out from hunger and thirst. However, whenever they do get a bite to eat or something to drink, the small respite seems to prolong their stay even more – another potentially political statement.

The film isn’t always entertaining, as it has too many different characters who are never properly introduced or distinguished from one another, and the acting isn’t great either, but Buñuel’s ellipses between reality and dream are exceedingly well executed and often keep us in suspense as to the true events.

The Exterminating Angel contains numerous bizarre moments involving animals – among them a bear and a flock of sheep roaming around the mansion, and a bird in someone’s purse – that are left unexplained but never fail to pique or renew our interest in the events on-screen.

As social commentary, the film is biting, and its political slant is also difficult to miss. However, by refusing to explain why certain solutions are not available to his characters, Buñuel often doesn’t answer our questions and it is tough to read the film as a serious work of art. Dialogue scenes are too short and fragmented, and characters who start an important conversation or make a valid point are often interrupted and we are left hanging.

With a very sharp outline, the film’s central premise is difficult to forget, and while the film has its ambiguous moments, most of the plot is presented as if the actions of the characters were taking place according to the physical rules of nature. Determined filmgoers will scratch their heads about many of the events, and Buñuel likes to tease the viewer, as in the scene with a young boy who makes it onto the house’s grounds before, inexplicably, backing away. But all too often, explanations remain out of reach, and parts of the film cannot satisfy the viewer who demands some kind of cause and effect.

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