Similar to Jean Renoir and the director of my #14 pick Les Diaboliques, H. G. Clouzot, the director of The Exterminating Angel was also banned from filmmaking in his own country and sought exile elsewhere for artistic freedom. Luis Bunuel was a well-travelled, continental artist before being given the boot from Spain. In France, he had met the surrealist painter Salvador Dali and together they made what’s quite possibly the most famous short film of all time, Un Chien Andalou. The film contains, among other things, an eyeball being cut in half, which would go on to inspire Frank Black from the Pixies to sing “I got me a movie, I want you to know, slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know…” Years later, Bunuel, no stranger to controversy, filmed and released a drama titled “Viridiana,” a film about a nun who has to give up the cloth after a man takes advantage of her. For this film, he was kicked out, which is unfortunate because the movie itself wasn’t that great. Ingmar Bergman made similar movies that were much better.
It was while he was exiled in Mexico that Bunuel created his best movie (from what I’ve seen) The Exterminating Angel. The movie follows a group of upper-crust aristocrats as they come together to have a dinner party in a mansion gated off from the rest of society. If that wasn’t exclusive and isolated enough, once they get acquainted with each other, they discover, in a surreal turn, that they are not able to leave the room they were dining in. The room adjoins the rest of the downstairs; there’s no wall or door forbidding them transit. It’s simply that, try as they might, some invisible force is keeping them all together in one place. To make matters worse, they don’t have their servants to help them. They had spent the earlier part of the film berating them, even laughing when one of the butlers tripped and spilled a tray of food. Now, without their servants, they fall into bedlam.
The film is an example of entropy occuring in a closed system. It is also about the class divide, which is a symbolic term, being turned into a literal reality. It’s in some ways like a philosophy book transposed into a visual medium. It will make you think about the class structure, about isolation, and about the relationship between civility and barbarism. Bunuel though isn’t willing to stop there. Legend has it, during the conceptual process of Un Chien Andalou, Luis told Dali not to include anything that could be readily interpreted as a symbol or metaphor. Bunuel likes to keep people guessing. It’s this opacity, this inability to be construed as pure propaganda, that makes The Exterminating Angel a good film.
There’s many things going on here that can’t be explained. For instance, what is the invisible barrier, and why is it there? Also, there’s other phenomena in the house, such as wildlife that roam around and a disembodied hand that scurries across the floor like Thing from the Addams family.
I should also point out that the film is executed with great craftsmanship. Bunuel, in a slow, unwavering way, keeps the camera moving in a graceful style similar to Stanley Kubrick and Max Orphuls. If the political undertone bothers you, you can instead watch the film on a different level, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. While this isn’t as overtly humorous as Bunuel’s later films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or That Obscure Object of Desire, there is a subtle humorousness throughout. No matter what you choose to get out of it, watch it. You may love it, you may hate it, but you won’t forget it.
If you do like this, I’d recommend Death in the Garden, another good film from his years in Mexico, as well as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a film Bunuel made after being accepted back into France. This film is in some ways an update of The Exterminating Angel, in that it revolves around a dinner party that goes awry (several dinner parties in fact).
P.S. Don’t get confused and accidentally rent the movie Exterminating Angels. This is an unrelated French film from 2006. I hate it when movies insist on having nearly identical title to other movies. Someone should film Gone With The Breeze.
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