#459 The Exterminating Angel
The man who introduced me to THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL was Woody Allen (by the surrogate of Owen Wilson) in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011). Oh man how much I wish to live in the 20s and 30s Paris and meet Buñuel, Dali, Hemingway and Picasso. That’s the film that I heard the strange occurrence of banquet guests being trapped inside a living room by an inexplicable and indiscernible force, none other than the one happened in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, directed by Luis Buñuel right after the scandalous acclaim VIRIDIANA (1961).
VIRIDIAN, a Spain-Mexico production, was banned by the Franco Spanish Government; Buñuel irrevocably returned to exile in Mexico for his next film, the place where he made films for the previous two decades. The synopsis of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is simple: a group of bourrgois guests were invited to the mansion for dinner; after dinner they realized they were unable to leave the living room even without any physical obstruction. They were trapped without water and food, and soon the humanity was crumbled and the civilization was dismantled.
Buñuel later claimed THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL was a failure, perhaps due to the fact that the film was not made in European countries which carried stronger sense of bourgeoisie culture than Mexico, hence a lack of genuine bourgeois costumes and sets in the final production. Buñuel said he may go as far as cannibalism if the film was made in France. As true as it may be, I always thought of the film as European in nature, as a universal satirical representation of bourgeoisie that has no border limit.
The hypocritical and bestial behavior of human, particularly the upper class, and the repression from authoritative and religious etiquette, were ongoing themes in Buñuel’s films, most subversive in his late period works starting from 60s, reaching the climax in THE DISCREET CHARM OF BOURGEOISIE (1972) and PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974). These were more likely a trend of personal obsession and the surrealist mind at work, that a thought in destruction of the corrupted and loathsome society.
The dream sequence may as well be quintessential in the surrealistic films. In THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, a detached hand drifting on the floor in an eerie nightmare, recalling a more elaborated haunting dream in LOS OLVIDADOS (1950), as well as the palm with ants in UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929). Any symbolical meaning was left for open interpretation, same thing could be said to the appearance of the bear and the sheep. In Buñuel’s words, the idea came from his real experience when a dinner host utilized the animals as some sort of funny joke (the intentional tripping of the waiter was another). Unbelievably bizarre it is, but the interpretation of the bear as “communism” and the sheep as “Jesus’s sacrifice” (the sheep was blindfolded before being slaughtered as food) were oddly enough to sound plausible.
The recurrence became the motif itself. We repeatedly witnessed scenes replayed themselves, sometime like a déjà vu, as the guests entered the mansion twice from the point of the view of the servants, both scenes looked roughly the same, except a difference in the camera angle; other times the repetitions had disparate outcomes, like when the host Edmundo (Enrique Rambal) gave a toast for Silvia (Elena Durgel) and her wonderful creation of the “Virgin Bride of Lammermoor” (the play they just watched?) during the banquet, he received warm attention and applaud at the first, but was coldly ignored in the repetition. Guests were introduced to each other as they were strangers, but a minute later they welcomed each other as they were old acquaintance. Not to mention the key to break the “spell” of entrapment in the living room was repetition: same position, same gesture and conversation of one particular moment.
What holds the film as an enjoyable social satire is the gradual peeling of the mask worn by individual. The male guests started stripping away their glamorous yet non-functional suit, the female futilely tried to retain their beauty by make-up and hair-combing. The physical appearance was the first wall to crumble. They feared, and hated each other; they argued, and only cared for his own. An old man passed away, a couple in love committed suicide in the closet, both death were taken almost too lightly by the embattled guests. They sought the superstitious solutions, a woman tried the “black magic”(?) with the chicken feet and feathers in her handbag, and unsurprisingly turned against the host and attempted manslaughter. Despite sounding hideous and gut-wrenching, all these were presented like a causal bad day in the apocalypse with underlining humor on the rottenness.
Precisely captured in black-and-white by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, the limited spatial orientation inside the living room was intentionally ambiguous, for example the dark closets and the lady washroom where “the occupant can see eagle flew by 40 feet below” were never clearly shown. The framing was economical, characters were positioned in layers, often contrasting each other with movement or stasis. The use of ensemble casts offered an alienation to the audience, it was often confusing to differentiate one character from another. Still I would remember Carlos (Augusto Benedico), the kind-hearted and sensible doctor; Julio (Claudio Brook), the butler and the only servant remained, all the others fled away just before the dinner was served due to the same inexplicable reason; Edmundo and Lucía (Lucy Gallardo), the hosts and owners of the mansion; as well as Leticia (Silvia Pinal), the Valkyrie played by the same lead actress from VIRIDIANA. There were other characters that their names were just lost in my mind, like the annoying childish brother and his sister, and the pianist who played a key role in solving the puzzle.
One may find some shortcomings and the innate surge of rational explanation for everything, or simply denounced the film due to its disgraceful portrait of the intellectual. The film would not carry the same impact if it happened amid working class, yet the manifestation of a microcosmic society was as powerfully genuine as any documentaries could, just like Buñuel’s LAND WITHOUT BREAD (1933). The film closed with a perfect ending, what would be better than the whole catastrophe repeated itself in a larger scale, with a heap of people trapped inside a church after a sermon, intercutting with scenes of army suppressing a demonstration? Are these the work of the angel or the demon, whose invisible hands controlled the living? But who needs explanation when Buñuel played the god in the film? If he forbade anyone from leaving, I would be happily to do so.
Criterion Release: 3.5/4