Luis Buñuel just doesn’t really care all that much for rich people. It’s a sentiment that’s more than apparent through all of the French surrealist’s work, from L’Age D’Or to The Phantom of Liberty and it seems it was never quite as apparent or hilarious as in his 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, recently released for the first time on DVD in the U.S., by those terrific film-lovers at Criterion.
The Exterminating Angel is a film from the latter part of Buñuel’s years working in Spain, before he rounded out the end of his career in France, with films like Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve. I have always loved his movies and have wanted to see this film for some time, but haven’t been able to due to its limited availability. So after all that waiting, does it serve up all the twisted Buñuel madness that I could have hoped for? Absolutely it does! In fact, I think it might be my favorite of his films.
The Exterminating Angel centers on a group of bourgeois socialites who gather together for a dinner party one fateful night. They are herded to the dining room by the servants who whisper and conspire, making plans to leave as soon and possible. And leave, they do, with just the poor butler left behind. After a lovely dinner and social discourse, the guests are ready to leave. However with some unable to figure out where their coats are and some maybe just too tipsy to drive, the whole party decides to spend the night on the floor and couches of the drawing room. Upon waking up the next morning, after such an ill-advised breach of social etiquette, they soon find that they are all unable to leave. There’s really nothing stopping them, they just can’t seem to make it out of the room. They stand at the threshold, staring out into the hallway. So close and yet so far.
It’s sort of the reverse concept of Buñuel’s 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which similar rich bourgeois types found themselves unable to sit down for dinner. But structurally, Angel is strikingly different from Discreet Charm. It’s a much more outspoken film, which makes its absurdities more jarring and much funnier as well. In Discreet Charm, the characters never eat dinner because other matters simply keep coming up (including an inexplicable war taking place just yards away). In Exterminating Angel, the only issue at hand for anyone is that they can’t get out of that damn room!
It’s not long before they succumb to all hopelessness. Many are sick and some even die. Those with enough strength spend most of their time hallucinating, sleeping, throwing around blame, and eventually becoming convinced they should kill the party’s host, because if they “kill the spider, the whole web will unravel.” And cue the sheep who freely wander in and out of the room and the bear that climbs the mansion’s gaudy staircases and columns.
Repetition is a key in Exterminating Angel and many shots, sentences, scenes, and actions are done twice. It’s all part of Buñuel’s big grand concoction, a gorgeous, hilarious, and cinematically genius middle finger to the rich and pampered, whose only skill is the instinct of habit and self-determined etiquette. I wouldn’t dare say if they make it out of the room or how they might do it, but the film’s ending is nothing short of a terrific and uproarious jab in the gut.
And of course, no Buñuel film would be complete without a few things flying over my head. There’s more than enough oddball craziness to go around. Aside from the sheep and the bear, we also have a dead chicken, kept in a drawer, eventually offered up in what I guess was a sacrifice. There’s plenty of curious dialogue as well. When an elderly man slips into a coma, someone asks the token doctor-in-the-house how much time he has left. “Not much,” the doctor responds. “In a few hours, he’ll be completely bald.” (An echo of an earlier conversation, to boot.) Sure, it’s got more than its share of head-scratcher moments to saunter past a feeble mind like my own, but it’s nevertheless massively entertaining creating the classic dreamlike tone and imagery that makes Buñuel the cinematic maestro of surrealism.
But maybe all that’s not good enough! Maybe you require more! Well, fear not, for the Criterion Collection’s excellent DVD comes complete with a wealth of diggings into Buñuel’s bizarre vision. The obligatory booklet includes an essay on the movie by film scholar Marsha Kinder as well as an interview with Luis Buñuel himself, where his polite musings offer up many enhancing insights, such as “A butler is a bourgeois at heart.” Features on the second disc include a 2008 documentary called The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel, which follows around Buñuel’s son, Juan Luis Buñuel, as he travels to all of the spots where Buñuel lived and worked throughout his career. It’s an interesting and informative 96 minutes, even if they aren’t the most scintillating at all times. Other features include intervies with actress Silvia Pinal and filmmaker Alturo Ripstein.
So all in all, it’s a great little package. It’s Criterion, so yeah, it’s a little bit on the pricy side, but if you’re rolling in disposable income or you just LOVE Buñuel, then it’s absolutely worth checking out. At the very least, Netflix the thing and treat yourself to one of the most entertaining and terrific surrealist comedies of all time!
You can buy The Exterminating Angel on DVD HERE.