The Criterion Collection Review | The Exterminating Angel
Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, made in 1962, late into the famously confrontational director’s career, is a timely take-down of class, salient in any age. For Buñuel – always notably critical of Franco’s Spain – no one was to be trusted; we were all prisoners of our own appetites and dark impulses. Buñuel explored this cynical streak in a series of surrealistic cinematic visions that showed its origins way back in the 1920s – 1928’s Un Chien Andalou, which he co-directed with Salvador Dalí, remains one of the great touchstones of all cinema – but whose clarity of voice didn’t really come to a head until The Exterminating Angel. It wasn’t until he had been working for over 30 years that Buñuel hit his stride.
Watching The Exterminating Angel in 2017 may leave certain audiences unimpressed; its messages of the underlying savagery of the bourgeoisie can read as trite and simplistic to many young audiences, and cynically acknowledging that rich people are just as gross and desperate on the inside as they are snooty and opulent on the outside hardly seems like the cutting edge of political commentary any longer. But Buñuel was expressing much more than an embittered adolescent nihilism; he was doing something daring and fresh at the time, and doing so with a film that insidiously creeps up on you in unexpected ways.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, The Exterminating Angel is about a group of upper-class party-goers who meet in a glorious Spanish mansion to enjoy dinner and after-dinner entertainment (which involves sheep and a performing bear). The dinner goes as expected, the conversation is warm in the open, but acidic in private. The cook and all the servants, save one, have had to leave the party for various reasons. After dinner, the guests retire to the parlor for conversation and performance. They grow weary. They make their goodbyes, but they all stay nonetheless. They begin to shed coats and snuggle up on the floor. It will soon be made evident that, even though there is nothing stopping them, the guests find that they are unable to leave this dinner party.
The guests remain stranded for what seems like weeks, maybe even months, and it’s not long before they’re chopping up furniture for warmth, digging into the wall’s plumbing for water, and defecating in fine Ming vases. Eventually, they’ll be eating those aforementioned sheep, and the only free denizen of the mansion is the performing bear. Is the bear a symbol for the specter of Communism?
Bourgeois living, Buñuel is clearly saying, is an unending litany of self-imposed misery, a dinner party of celebration that will only be pleasant for one evening, eventually devolving into typical human nature, which, for Buñuel, was petty and painful. The only crime of the wealthy, in Buñuel’s milieu, is that they are wealthy in a time when the working classes are being openly screwed by the government. Buñuel, like many, has refused to openly discuss the symbolism of the film, but this is a clear statement of the way the wealthy operate, especially in Franco’s Spain.
It’s hard to imagine being blindsided by The Exterminating Angel anymore, given that it’s become such a cinematic go-to, but I can picture how audiences may have reacted, not knowing the premise. They would have been uncomfortable, sweaty, and made to feel claustrophobic. And, of course, outraged. Buñuel aimed to be a provocateur, and once said in his autobiography that he filled his pockets with rocks at the premiere of Un Chien Andalou in case he was attacked by the audience and would have something to huck at them in defense.
The Exterminating Angel is ever more of a confrontation, however. Not only because of its clear political underpinnings, but because of a weird undercurrent of human sympathy. None of the characters in this film are depicted as being outwardly wicked beyond the predictable extramarital affairs and petty sniping. Indeed, they are pained, self-pitying, even sad figures. While Buñuel is attacking them, he is also showing that they have a recognizable humanity. This lends a certain dark emotional weight to the satire; this is more than an intellectual exercise.
The Exterminating Angel feels, at times, like too much a product of its time and place to appeal to modern audiences, and knowing the political background can certainly only enhance one’s enjoyment. But any young person who has felt outrage at class inequality – anyone who has marched against economic injustice in any country – will recognize Buñuel’s satirical impulses right away. Outrage, we may see, is universal.
Top Image: Gustavo Alatriste
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.