on 14 September 2006
As a dinner party for wealthy arostocrats is beginning, the hosts are suddenly faced with an inexplicable mass walkout as one by one their staff leave, each with their own reason. As the evening draws to a close, equally inexplicably, none of the guests find themselves able to leave. Breaking all their social taboos they all sleep on the floor in the dining room, beginning to become violent, lustful and degenerate as the days wear on. A crowd gathers outside, and equally none of the trapped partygoers' friends or relatives find themselves able to get in.
This is a great story; it plays out like a film-length version of one of the older style "Twilight Zone" episodes, and also has the lovely sting in the tail that goes with it. There are some surreal moments as well, including the random appearences of a bear and sheep inside the house and a disembodied floating hand.
There are clear stabs here by the director at what he sees as the aloofness of certain social groups considering themselves more civilised then others; the aristocracy, the masons, and the church.
Filmed in the 1960s in black and white and with subtitles to the Spanish dialogue, none of this detracts from a great story and an engrossing film.
on 28 October 2009
Bunuel is one of the greatest moviemakers of all times and this is his best work.
Mordant, funny, ironic verging on sardonic, yet occasionally sympathetic to the
plight of its characters, and unfailingly artistic throughout.
Many single frames would by themselves win photography prizes -- the composition,
lighting, and rich B&W tones are simply gorgeous.
As in almost any Bunuel movie, there is no real story; instead, using nearly
only images (this could work as a silent movie), Bunuel tells us a parable
about bestial and noble actions, about the delicate nature of the veneer of
civilization, about mob behavior and moral virtues,
all crystallized in the light of an apparently supernatural condition
(hence the "angel" in the title).
At the end, Bunuel pulls one of his signature surprises on us, perhaps to tell us
that the rather wealthy and mostly vain people whose behavioral responses were
just illustrated under his camera's eye are just a random sample of humankind.
B&W movies do not come any better than this.
on 9 November 2013
Luis Buñuel's 1962 The Exterminating Angel (El Angel exterminador) is without doubt a 5 star film which should belong to every film collection worthy of the name. However, this region 2 Arrow transfer manages to omit a vital scene near the beginning which qualifies any recommendation of the DVD. The scene in question is a repeat shot (from a slightly higher angle) of the guests entering the house for the party while two servants hide waiting to sneak out undetected. It is the first of a series of déjà vu tricks which leads logically to the `take two' way that the guests finally leave the house. As such, the cut (even though it's only 10 seconds) is very damaging to the whole structure of the film. I checked out the Criterion region 1 version and sure enough the repeated entry of the guests is there, and what's more the print (even as presented on YouTube) seems much finer than this Arrow release. I would therefore recommend buyers go for the Criterion version especially as it has a second disc full of interesting extras including Gaizka Urresti and Javier Espada's documentary, The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel (2008) and interviews with Silvia Pinal. Those who don't possess a region-free DVD player are faced with a Hobson's choice of this Arrow release which has no extras at all. The print is still very good and it is also very cheap, the Criterion version costing 3-4 times as much. Some of you might think it worth going for this cheaper version especially if you see the missing scene on YouTube as I did and know what you are missing. Ideally, Arrow will withdraw this product and re-release it correctly possibly as a duel with a Blu-ray version as well.
The Exterminating Angel has an important place in the Buñuel canon. In 1961 the director was on top of the world having picked up the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Viridiana. Persona non grata in Spain thanks to that film's corrosive attack on Catholicism and the Franco regime, he returned to Mexico with producer Gustavo Alatriste and `Mrs. Alatriste', Silvia Pinal. For his next project he opted to go back to his Surrealist routes as essayed in Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'or. An abrupt change from the melodramatic style of his Mexican films of the 1950s, the film's free-flowing Surrealist style set the pattern for most of his work to come, evidenced most obviously in Belle du Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty. These later films made mostly in France are successful but rather mild compared to the best of his Mexican work. None of them are as ferocious, as biting, as corrosive or as wickedly acute as The Exterminating Angel.
An adaptation by Luis Alcoriza (his 10th film for Buñuel!) of José Bergamín's unfinished play of the same name, The Exterminating Angel (originally titled The Outcasts of Providence Street) is the tale of how a group of rich Bourgeois poseurs return from an evening at the opera (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor), lead singer and conductor in tow, to the house of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile (Enrique Rambal and Lucy Gallardo) for a grand supper. The meal goes well and the guests relax for a formal soirée. But things are far from normal. In the first place, all the servants except for the Majordomo Julio (Claudio Brook) hasten to exit the house as quickly as possible, many of them even before the guests arrive. No reason is given for this, but there is definitely the air of `rats deserting a sinking ship' here as remarked by one of the guests. Then much later instead of going home as social etiquette demands they do, the guests take off their jackets, loosen their gowns and settle down for the night on the couches, chairs and floor of the drawing room. They are all physically able to leave the house, but mentally they are unable to cross the threshold. Again Buñuel gives no reason for the psychological barrier. The barrier proves to be formidable, lasting for several days (possibly even a month as alluded to by another guest - the precise time is actually never specified) and it proves to be two way. The guests can't exit and people on the street can't enter either. Trapped together in the drawing room, people's patience begins to run thin (some are obviously impatient from the very beginning) and as the food and water run out, the once `glorious' and `noble' members of élite high society are reduced to the state of squalid filthy animals arguing and attacking each other, gnawing at bones and scrabbling degenerate-like on the detritus-strewn floor for any crumb that will render sustenance. If anything, the state to which they are reduced is worse than anything Buñuel depicted in his earlier social-realist films like Los Olvidados or El Bruto.
In total one could say that all of Buñuel's films amount to a cleansing of our perceptions and an explosion of the repressive stupidities of convention and ritual. Buñuel hated all cultural rituals which repress people's natural emotions and his films are full of eruptions stemming from this repression. In Nazarín and Viridiana he had attacked the organized religion of the Catholic Church, the first of Buñuel's arch-repressors. In The Exterminating Angel it is the Bourgeoisie that comes under fire though the Church is still a part of it. The film constitutes a merciless assault on the hypocrisy of middle class arrogance and self-centeredness. The Bourgeoisie and the values they upheld were intolerable to Buñuel and in this film he lets rip in a violent way which was never to be repeated.
In the film Buñuel goes to great lengths to deliberately obfuscate meaning and the Surrealist style dictates that no one reading of the work actual explains away everything we see. Nevertheless, the director positively goads us into reaching out for meanings all the way through. One possible key to understanding the film lies at the start of the supper when the host Nobile proposes a toast to the lead singer and conductor of the opera they have just seen. Everyone responds as etiquette requires by raising their glasses. Immediately (echoing the déjà vu repeat entry of the guests not seen on this DVD!), Nobile repeats the toast but is ignored. He stutters into silence as the camera pans down the table showing the bored indolent apathetic faces of the members of the Bourgeoisie which Buñuel is about to lay into. At the bottom of the table a career army officer scandalizes a lady by refuting patriotism and saying his country (and I think we should infer Spain here rather than Mexico) is disappearing into the sea thanks to its many rivers - the sea is a Jungian symbol for death. It's as if Buñuel first gives the surface, the social veneer that the Bourgeoisie exudes, but then in the blink of an eye he gives us the reality. The following arc of the film's narrative shows that rottenness isn't a state that the Bourgeoisie regresses into. Rather, it is something that is an integral part of their nature from the beginning. The veneer of high `civilization' is simply a façade maintained to keep up appearances which represses any real emotion. Buñuel later used the dinner table setting to attack the middle class most conspicuously in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and in The Phantom of Liberty which has dinner guests sitting on toilet seats around the table. These scenes are agreeably amusing, but they lack the cutting cynicism of the present film. The hostess has arranged a `joke' for the amusement of the guests by deliberately tripping up a waiter while he's carrying a loaded tray. There is not a drop of humanity in the way the guests laugh at the misfortune of this member of the working class. One guest, a Mr. Russell (Antonio Bravo) doesn't have a sense of humor and the hostess is obliged to cancel a second bizarre joke which would have included letting loose a bear and a flock of sheep on the room. A command of Spanish is needed to get all the nuances of the table conversation and the talk that follows in the soirée, but it's obvious that everyone hates each other and merely pay lip-service to social conventions. Smiles hide inner feelings of aggression and back-stabbing treachery. A gaggle of women comment about a foreign lady, Leticia (Silvia Pinal) who is nicknamed `the Valkyrie' because she treasures her virginity with warrior-like ice maiden intensity - they call her virginity `a perversion'. Leticia may possibly notice the attack and hurls an ash-tray (?) through a window breaking the glass. Another guest comments, "Oh, it's just a passing Jew". The casual callousness of the crowd is revealed in various conversation asides. One woman describes the horror of witnessing a train derailment where she sees poor people squished up `like a concertina' in a crushed carriage. Her ghoulish friends lean forward with interest to hear the dripping details and she says she wasn't shocked at all, the horror not comparing to the experience of a celebrity funeral (a mere social occasion) where she feinted with emotion. Another guest says quite sincerely, "I think the lower classes are immune to pain".
The social etiquette of haute-Bourgeois behavior is paid lip-service to all the way through the film. Guests realize they should all go home, but they don't. They shouldn't take off their dinner jackets or loosen their gowns, but they do. `Ladies first' should be observed at all times, but it isn't. As the situation becomes increasingly desperate, the behavior becomes increasingly despicable. One man has lost his pills to treat a serious malady only for another to find the medication and spitefully throw it away. When they are forced to break open a pipe in the wall, the guests fight for water like dogs, women being thrust aside by the selfish men. The only guest to retain any kind of `civilized' morality is Dr. Conde (Augusto Benedico) who tends a sick man to death (Mr. Russell - does Buñuel punish him for not having a sense of humor?) and casts around for possible drugs. Nobile reveals his secret stash of `social' morphine which he donates to the doctor, but is then stolen by the selfish Francisco Avila (Xavier Loyá) and his protective sister Juana (Ofelia Guilmáin) who seem to be incestuously attached (another Wagner reference along with the Valkyrie) and who want the drug just for their own pleasure. The character of Francisco is particularly unpleasant. High strung and super-sensitive he can't stand the tiny infringements of Bourgeois behavior like a woman combing her hair and is vicious in his verbal attacks saying another woman `stinks like a hyena'. In her essay for Cineaste magazine Karen Backstein has drawn attention to the way the film resembles the Jean-Paul Sartre existentialist play Huis Clos (No Exit) which confines three characters to a room. They eventually discover their destiny is to remain cooped up there forever, torturing each other through eternity. Perhaps for Buñuel as well as Sartre, Hell is to be with other people and when the sheep are baked on fires which smoke out the room, Hell is absolutely the right word to describe the mise-en-scène. In the end everything boils down to the vicious mob rounding on Nobile, blaming him for having invited them to the party. They demand his sacrifice and just before he is forced to oblige them, Leticia comes up with her ingenious idea for their escape. Throughout all this it's important to realize that what we see in the film is not a systematic destruction of civilization (that would admit the Bourgeoisie were civilized in the first place), but a revealing of the real nature of this `civilization'. The Bourgeois idea of civilization is simply a huge façade, a pretense which represses real emotions and prevents people from expressing themselves naturally. This is the sinking ship of apathy which the servants desert at the beginning of the film and herein lays the film's radical social assault.
Above matters of plot and characters, it's noticeable how Buñuel pin-points and lacerates each belief system that members of the Bourgeoisie cling to. During the piano recital and in conversation references are made to Freemasonry, a middle class claque devoted to self-service and self-promotion among the secret members which in the end proves useless. Then there is talk of cabbala, a Jewish belief system referencing the occult which some of the members present resort to in order to affect an escape, but which again fails. Most obviously of all there is the Roman Catholic Church which frames the film and is a constant presence throughout. The opening credits roll over the front of a cathedral and the incantation of Catholic plainsong. Very obvious is the way Buñuel has pictures of various saints of the Catholic Church hung on the wall of the drawing room. They look down and observe the cruel behavior of the humans for which they (according to Buñuel) are responsible. Deliciously ironic is the way the pictures hang on doors which lead into cupboards in which guests relieve themselves in vases, have sex, or kill themselves. The couple committing suicide is a particularly blatant blasphemy as suicide is forbidden by the Catholic Church. The film closes with the guests observing their Te Deum at the cathedral in thanks to God for delivering them. After the film's vicious condemnation of their scandalous behavior we cannot avoid wagging our fingers at the hypocrites as the camera pans along them more like they are the accused at a trial than the congregation at a church service. Then we see the hypocrisy extend to the priests as well, for they cannot leave the premises. The bishop suggests they let the congregation leave first, but of course, they too cannot leave. The psychological barrier once again has gone up. Interestingly, Buñuel is careful to erase the people we have been looking at the whole film, emphasizing that his depiction of apathetic middle class hypocrisy extends beyond the walls of exclusive drawing rooms of obviously rich landowners to include everyone else as well. The Church is culpable as a pillar of Bourgeois hypocrisy, and its leaders are left stranded with their congregation in the cathedral as revolution breaks out on the streets. Here we return to the political critique (of Franco's Spain?) suggested at the film's outset - it is the exodus of the servants that perhaps strands the middle class in their apathy for without the working class the middle class cannot function. And without the middle class the working class is easily led to rebellion and it's to the sound of machine gun fire as the military savagely put the rebellion down that the film ends.
Wickedly funny and devastatingly pungent in its laceration of the hypocrisy of Bourgeois values and behavior, The Exterminating Angel is a staggering achievement. Gabriel Figueroa's camerawork transcends the difficulties of shooting in just the one location with consummate ease, the few cutaways to street scenes outside the front of the house pointed in their effect. The acting (with few well known names outside of Pinal in the cast) is superb and Buñuel's direction is as pointed and as beautifully nuanced as ever. The wonderful title by the way refers to the Bible, 2 Samuel 24:16, where God sends an angel to punish David. `And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, it is enough'. The exterminating angel is referenced only once in the film by Mr. Russell as he dies saying, "...I'm spared the angel". Obviously Buñuel wanted the angel to exterminate everyone thoroughly in this film later saying in his autobiography My Last Breath, that he regretted the guests not being reduced to cannibalism at the end. Now that really would have been something! A marvelous film which you will need to see a number of times, it's a mandatory purchase. But make sure you get the Criterion version if you have a multi-region player.
Made in Mexico, Luis Bunuel's 1962 film The Exterminating Angel is a sharply inventive satire on class and social convention. The film was the second in a trilogy of films that Bunuel made with producer Gustavo Alatriste and Alatriste's wife, actress Silvia Pinal - Viridiana being the first and Simon Of The Desert the final film of the trilogy. In many ways, in this film Bunuel set the tone for many of his later classic films tackling similar themes such as The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie and The Phantom Of The Liberty. In The Exterminating Angel, it is also possible to detect traces of other great satirical films, most notably Renoir's Le Regle Du Jeu.
In this film, Bunuel uses an upper class dinner party, taking place in an ornate mansion, as the setting for a devastating exploration of the prejudices, instincts and conventions of this privileged gathering - significantly, most of the servants have left the house as the party guests arrive, leaving their social 'betters' to their Bunuel-engineered fate. With some brilliantly incisive dialogue, Bunuel uncompromisingly exposes the superficial pretences of his protagonists as they joke about how unconcerned they were about a train crash in which the 3rd class carriage was squashed, and yet become enraged at the breach in etiquette when one guest removes his jacket without permission ('Don't forget that he lived in the United States.'). As a metaphor for their entrapment by social convention, Bunuel then uses an ingenious filmic device by trapping the entire dinner party, physically, inside their dining room. There then ensues a total breakdown in the societal rules and norms of the dinner guests, as they are forced to break down a wall to obtain water from a built-in water pipe and even eat paper to stave off starvation.
Acting-wise there are particularly strong performances from the party hosts Enrique Rambal as Edmundo Nobile and Lucy Gallardo as Lucia de Nobile, and from Augusto Benedico as Doctor Carlos Conde, who attempts to act as a calming influence as all semblance of normality goes out of the window. The Exterminating Angel was nominated for the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1962, eventually winning the international film critics award (the FIPRESCI).
For me, I think the main flaw of the film is that, despite the undoubted brilliance of Bunuel's central premise, he struggles to maintain the engagement of the viewer for the last 20 minutes or so. Also, the ending of the film is rather disappointing, or probably just too subtle, but appears to be a dig at authoritarian regimes i.e. almost certainly Franco's.
Despite these flaws, a film that is well worth seeing.