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The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)

written by rick December 25, 2014
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)

Luis Bunuel created a masterpiece in The Exterminating Angel, a savagely funny satire of bourgeois manners and the latent brutality they barely manage to conceal. Alternately, it might be a shameless rip-off of the 6th Season Buffy episode Older and Far Away which, presumably through some magic portal or Faustian bargain, Bunuel was able to view 40 years in advance. Probably the first one.

The film’s one-sentence synopsis on IMDB is accurate: “The guests at an upper-class dinner party find themselves unable to leave.” That is exactly what happens, and little more, narrative-wise. But all the deadpan laughs, surreal touches, and political critique are found in the interactions between these entitled members of the ruling class.

At the end of a successful dinner party, the guests inexplicably begin to prepare for bed in their hosts’ living room. Not wanting to offend anyone, and delighted at this show of unusual spontaneity, they all bunk down for the night. In the morning, coffee is served in the room, as this is what one does. No one even tries to leave, though one guest bemoans the fact that her kid is at home and needs looking after. By the time people really try to make a break for it, it becomes clear they can’t cross the threshold.

Hours turn into days, then days to weeks, until no one can remember how long they’ve been in this room. Food and water supplies collapse, and the proceedings become increasingly grim as the veneer of upper-class sophistication falls away. They threaten each other’s lives and engage in some ruthlessness; trash accumulates just across the doorway, where they pile it; two lovers kill themselves in desperation and are placed in a closet. Two sheep enter the room and they slaughter them (they were supposed to be included in after-dinner entertainment, also featuring a bear, which never came to pass. Later, we see the bear just hanging out).

Outside the house, friends, family, and concerned strangers have gathered, but they too can’t enter from their side. In fact, they come up with immediate excuses and don’t bother to try. They circle about making meaningless suggestions and small talk.

When a solution is found to break the spell, the joyous group of ruling class hypocrites plan a large mass to thank God for their deliverance … only to find they can’t seem to leave the church, either. The Exterminating Angel is an obsessive work, vitriolic and hilarious in its scorn for the ruling class, and for the Spanish elite in particular.

Roger Ebert described Bunuel this way: “an enemy of Franco’s Spain, he was anti-fascist, anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois … [his] firmest conviction was that most people were hypocrites–the sanctimonious and comfortable most of all.” This comes through in every moment of the film, seared onto celluloid by an artist on a mission. The Exterminating Angel is both righteous in his anger and devoted to its surreal comedy, two things that for Bunuel were never far apart.

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