Monday, March 23, 2009

The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel is Luis Buñuel's most darkly funny and vicious satire of upper-class mores, an eviscerating portrait of how easily the façades of civility, nobility and good manners can be broken down. The film's famous premise involves a dinner party for a group of wealthy friends after an opera, hosted at the opulent mansion of Edmundo (Enrique Rambal) and Lucía (Lucy Gallardo). Everyone arrives in high spirits, talking and laughing. In fact, in one of Buñuel's first surrealist intrusions into the surface of the film, the guests actually arrive twice in quick succession, the same scene playing out two times before the guests are allowed to go upstairs. Once there, they find that all the servants have left, without explanation, leaving only Julio (Claudio Brook) to serve dinner and perform all the other necessary tasks. So the party keeps subtly slipping off the rails right from the start. Edmundo gives a toast twice, though this time instead of the scene playing out the same way with each repetition, the host finds that the second time around everyone has completely ignored him. When the waiter comes to serve the first course, which Lucía has announced with much hype and enthusiasm, the servant trips and falls, splattering the meal all over the nearby dinner guests.

What's obvious already at this point is Buñuel's irreverent, comic treatment of the upper-class, who are portrayed as vain and vapid, emptily chatting in non sequiturs. After dinner, Buñuel's camera wanders fluidly around the room, passing from one conversation to the next, chronicling the ignorance and casual cruelty of these people. One of the most telling moments is when a woman talks about being involved in a train accident, in which a whole carload of third-class passengers were killed; "like a slaughterhouse," she says, though she also admits that she could not feel moved by the deaths. She felt more deeply for the death of a prince who laid in state, because of his nobility and his handsome profile. Already, it's obvious that Buñuel is satirizing these people who fancy themselves distinguished and noble and good, but who lack even the decency to mourn for the lives of anyone not from their own class. Death is insignificant to these people, even to the doctor (Augusto Benedico), who seems more concerned with superficial matters than the real health of his patients: he indicates that a man is dying by saying, with great gravity, "he'll be bald by midnight," confounding baldness and mortality.

But all of this is just a setup for the film's real punchline, because as the night wears on and the dinner party continues unabated, it becomes obvious that no one can leave the room they're in, that they are infected by an overpowering lethargy that traps them in place. They casually break with decorum, forgetting their class and the rules of good manners, and begin settling down for the night scattered around the room, the men taking off their jackets and everyone lying down on couches and pillows and on the floor. This represents an unthinkable breach of conduct for these people, so obsessed with appearances and reputation and class; as one guest says the next morning, horrified by her own behavior, "we turned this room into a gypsy campground."

There's worse in store. The premise of The Exterminating Angel is a brilliant surrealist gag, one Buñuel would later reverse for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In that film, a group of wealthy dinner guests are continually interrupted, often violently, before they are able to eat their meal, while in this film a dinner party is stretched out for weeks with the guests mysteriously unable to leave. In both cases the idea is the same: Buñuel is violently assaulting the sacred rituals of the bourgeois, committing what is essentially blasphemy against whatever images of itself the upper-class holds dear. As the days wear on and the guests still find themselves unable to leave, the party increasingly degenerates into savagery, cruelty and primitivism, with the guests shedding one by one the restraints and manners of polite society.

It's as though, isolated from society, deprived of food and unsure of what's happening, these people forget who they are, forget all the rituals and distinctions that they have used to elevate themselves above the common man. Sexual mores and restrictions break down: the engaged couple darts off into the closet to consummate their relationship without being married yet, while the lecherous old composer sneaks around in the middle of the night kissing sleeping women. The rules of politeness also disappear, and the men stop disguising their contempt for one another, openly making their nasty feelings known and hovering on the brink of violent altercations. Of the assembled company, the only ones who retain their civility are the host Edmundo, who tries to soothe the conflicts between the guests, and Leticia (Buñuel favorite Silvia Pinal), who the other guests have dubbed the Valkyrie for her purity and unapproachable manner. During their confinement, she seems to float among the guests, tending to their needs, giving water and comfort to those who are ill and weak. Her nickname, a gossipy taunt that the other guests whisper behind her back, becomes appropriate during the period of confinement: the Valkyries, in Norse mythology, are battlefield figures who bring the slain to Valhalla, attend to the wounded and bring cups of ale to dead warriors in the afterlife.

Like Edmundo, Leticia retains her dignity and grace throughout the film, never succumbing to the bestial tendencies of the others. When a trio of lambs inexplicably wander into the room, she even blindfolds one of the animals before it is slaughtered, a gesture of sympathy for a creature facing a death sentence. The rest of the group shows no such respect for the dead, even for their own fellows. When one man dies, they unceremoniously dump his body in the closet, and the suicide of the two young lovers (also in a closet) prompts gales of laughter and then sudden disinterest. One recalls the story from the beginning of the film, the train accident whose lower-class victims elicited no pity from the bourgeois. Apparently, savagery for these already vile people consists of losing the ability to care even about the members of their own class; their sympathy extends no further than themselves.

Buñuel presents all of this with a deadpan tone that accentuates the ridiculous dark comedy of the scenario, the disintegration of manners yielding absurdist humor as well as abjection. At the same time, Buñuel never seems to be just making fun of these people, and his portrayal of their suffering is sympathetic. One can easily imagine a similar scenario in which these privileged people are mocked for over-reacting to modest deprivations, but their suffering here is genuine, and unites them (if only for a few weeks or months) with deprived people everywhere, people lacking food and drink and adequate living space. As usual, Buñuel's satirical sensibility is complicated by his refusal to score easy points against obvious targets. The film ends with a sequence at a church which posits the possibility of a whole other mirror film, taking the same subject and transposing it from the bourgeois to the clergy. This ending is as multi-layered as everything in this complex film, suggesting the cyclical nature of suffering, its perennial presence and the randomness of its appearances, as well as the union between the upper-class and religious institutions; Buñuel implies that both the Church and the bourgeois can be satirized in the same way.


Anonymous said...

Definitely a contender Ed here for the "Only the Cinema" Hall of Fame. Bravo.

Bunuel is one of my absolute favorite directors (no one in cinema history can match that acerbic wit and satire) and I think VIRIDIANA is my favorite, but this one does push close. That 'reversed gag' you speak about in DISCREET CHARM is brilliance incarnate; the priest with the gun is another one of the director's attacks on the church. I love that the opening scene in this plays out twice. God (did I say 'God'?) I want to put my brand new Criterion of this on right now, even though I only watched it a few weeks ago.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Sam. I actually read an interview with Bunuel where he says that, besides the entrance scene and Edmundo's toast, there are around twenty deliberate repetitions in this film, but that many of them are hard to notice. Now I want to watch it again with an eye towards catching those.

Anonymous said...

Now that would be a challenge for sure Ed!

Scholar Spartan said...

Thank you for this wonderful write-up. It helped me understand the movie's premise.