THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL
A film by Luis Bunuel
1962/ Mexico / 93 minutes
22nd Feb 2015; 5.45pm / Perks Mini Theater
The dinner guests arrive twice. They ascend the stairs and walk through the wide doorway, and then they arrive again--the same guests, seen from a higher camera angle. This is a joke and soon we will understand the punch line: The guests, having so thoroughly arrived, are incapable of leaving.
Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" (1962) is a macabre comedy, a mordant view of human nature that suggests we harbor savage instincts and unspeakable secrets. Take a group of prosperous dinner guests and pen them up long enough, he suggests, and they'll turn on one another like rats in an overpopulation study.
Bunuel begins with small, alarming portents. The cook and the servants suddenly put on their coats and escape, just as the dinner guests are arriving. The hostess is furious; she planned an after-dinner entertainment involving a bear and two sheep. Now it will have to be canceled. It is typical of Bunuel that such surrealistic touches are dropped in without comment.
By setting up a plot where wealthy people become captives, Bunuel is creating an environment reminiscent of a concentration camp to draw a parallel between literal captivity and the societal trappings associated with social roles among the wealthy. It is interesting to see that the answer to set themselves free derives from their ability to think their way back to how the past led to this point.
On poetic and literate level, The Exterminating Angel is masterful, well paced and brilliant at establishing suspense despite the absence of a hard reason to explain why the guests are unable to leave the home. The acting is flawless, as nothing less than great acting is required to immerse us in a situation that clearly doesn’t make sense at first. The tone of the film is serious but it carries a high degree of black comedy.
The father of cinematic Surrealism and one of the most original directors in the history of the film medium, Luis Buñuel was given a strict Jesuit education (which sowed the seeds of his obsession with both religion and subversive behavior), and subsequently moved to Madrid to study at the university there, where his close friends included Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca.
After moving to Paris, with financial assistance from his mother and creative assistance from Dalí, he made his first film, the 17-minute Un Chien Andalou (1929), in 1929, and immediately catapulted himself into film history.The following year, he made his first feature, the scabrous witty and violent L'Age d'Or (1930), which mercilessly attacked the church and the middle classes, themes that would preoccupy Buñuel for the rest of his career.
Moving to Mexico in the late 1940s he made Los Olvidados (1950), winning him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1961, General Franco, anxious to be seen to be supporting Spanish culture invited Buñuel. In Sapin Bunuel made Viridiana (1961), which was banned in Spain on the grounds of blasphemy, though it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
With writer Jean-Claude Carrière he made seven extraordinary late masterpieces, starting with Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). After saying that every one of his films from Belle de Jour (1967) onwards would be his last, he finally kept his promise with That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), after which he wrote a memorable (if factually dubious) autobiography, in which he said he'd be happy to burn all the prints of all his films