Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel is a cynical and macabre satire on the slow and deteriorating breakdown of human civilization, as Bunuel takes several wealthy bourgeois guests and purposely traps them all in an over populated room, which is similar to using mice to conduct a social experiment. At first these guests stay civilized, level-headed and continue using good etiquette, but Bunuel will slowly have them mentally break down and turn on one another, which will reveal their true animalistic instincts and have them pathetically lose whatever dignity they originally thought they had. Bunuel describes the film as "the story of a group of friends who have dinner together after seeing a play, but when they go into the living room after dinner, they find that for some inexplicable reason they can't leave." We as the audience are forced to accept that for whatever reason or so whether it's psychological or imagined and unfortunately for them there is no way they can break free from this invisible prison that Bunuel has created for them. Luis Bunuel has been one of the most cynical directors ever since he created his radical surreal masterpiece Un Chien Andalou along with Salvaldor Dali in 1929, which is iconic for showing an woman's eye-ball getting sliced from a razor. Bunuel believed most people were hypocrites, especially the wealthy and comfortable, which is primarily who he enjoyed focusing on tormenting throughout his films, presenting the cruel, bleak and destructive views of human existence.
The film opens on Providence Street as a formal dinner party is being set up at the lavish mansion of Senor Edmundo Nobile and his wife, Lucia after the guests attend a play. The big doors of the mansion open as the main chauffeur Lucas walks out for a walk but is ordered back inside by Edmundo because they will soon have 20 quests arriving. Lucas is insistent and so Edmundo orders him to never set foot in the mansion again.
Servers set up the candles and utensils in the dinner room as Edmundo asks them if anyone of them quarreled with Lucas because of his sudden departure. They say that he didn't even say anything and Edmundo says, "Well, if he didn't like it here, good riddance. There are plenty of others like him around." Several other servants and the main cook Camila are in the kitchen and are waiting to unaccountably leave their posts and leave the mansion when the guests arrive.
People finally start arriving as they all flood into the front hall (which I believe happens twice with two different camera shots). Because Lucas isn't there to take their coats they all head upstairs to put their coats away while Camilla and all the other servants quickly make their escape.
The guests then all sit down for dinner in the dinner room as Edmundo gets up to make a friendly toast to his guests saying, "To the delightful evening our friend Silvia provided us, and to her wonderful creation of the 'Virgin Bride of Lammermoor.'" One of the guests named Leandro Gomez says to another guest named Rita, "Bride I can accept. But virgin?" Rita says, "The virgin part would have suited the Valkyrie better. Yes, Leticia." The two of them look over at Leticia (Silvia Pinal) "I call her that because she is ferocious and a virgin. They say she's holding on to that object. Perhaps it's some kind of perversion."
The scene repeats once again as Edmundo gets and repeats his toast and yet this time it seems no one is listening or caring as all the guests at the table start to converse with one another. The servant walk in with the Maltese dish which Lucia announces to the guests wasn't originally the order of the menu. The famous maestro Alberto says that he had that dish in Capri where he conducted concert years ago. But when the servant walks past the table he trips and falls spilling the Maltese dish everywhere making some of the guests like Raul laugh hysterically while some like Sergio didn't find it quite so humorous. Raul says to Lucia, "Delicious, Lucia. And quite unexpected."
Frustrated with her servants incompetence Lucia makes her way into the dining hall and catches a small bear in her presence. She originally planned an after-dinner entertainment involving a bear and two sheep but now it has to be cancelled since all her servants unexpectedly bailed out on her. Lucia orders Julio the steward to let the bear and the several sheep (which at first is out of the frame because of them being under the table) to be let out into the garden.
After dinner the guests adjourn to the music room, where one of the women, Blanca, plays a piano sonata for them as they all sit down to unwind. Leticia is found still sitting alone at the dinner table and for some reason Leticia gets up from the table grabs a glass and throws it breaking one of the glass windows. Some of the guests in the music room all the crash and Gomez says, "Some Jew passing by," but Raul knows it was the Valkyrie.
A doctor at the party named Carlos and he gets a passionate kiss by one of his patients named Leonora who believes he cured her of her cancer. Gomez takes Carlos aside and asks him what that passionate kiss was all about and asks if there is any hope for Leonara's cancer. Carlos says, "Unfortunately, none. In three months she'll be completely bald."
While all the guests relax in the music room listening to Blanca play the piano a superstitious guest named Ana takes out a handkerchief from her purse as you notice feet from a chicken sticking out, which is all likely a superstitious good luck charm. Edmundo believes the night is coming to an end and orders Julio to get the coats ready.
For some reason one of the guests named Alberto gets suddenly tired and his wife places him on the couch believing it's probably fatigue. Rita, Alvaro's wife starts to get sleepy as well and soon after all the guests unaccountably start removing their jackets, loosening their gowns, and settling down for the night on couches, chairs and the floor. Lucia is surprised no one has decided to leave yet and when going into another room to find Blanca's missing shawl she is followed by a guest named Aranda who we just discover is also her secret lover. They both embrace and Aranda asks her why the guests haven't left yet because it's almost 4:00 a.m and they want to spend some time together. Lucia tells him they should be leaving any minute now and that he can sneak off to her bedroom during all the good-buys and if her husband Edmundo comes in, she'll say she was showing him the incunabula.
Realizing his guests still haven't left Edmundo suggests that if his guests are too tired to leave he'll make up as many rooms as needed for them. Julio starts to turn off the lights and Lucia thinks the guests are going too far by rudely spending the night without asking. Eventually when all the guests start to fall asleep Lucio secretly walks away with Aranda while other guests also start to sexually fool around with one another.
The next morning arrives and all the guests wake up with Edmundo very confused and not understanding how this situation got to this point. His wife Lucia says, "What can I say? For now we have to offer them breakfast. I'm sure they'll go home after that." Some of the women start discussing the dreams they had as Blanca describes a train wreck in which the third class compartment, full of common people, had been squashed like a huge accordion. She continues saying, "The suffering of those poor people didn't move me at all." She also describes how she fainted away with grief before the grandeur of death of that admirable Prince Lurca who had such a noble body. Rita says, "I think the lower classes are less sensitive to pain. Have you seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of emotion."
Sergio doesn't seem to be waking up so Carlos suggests that Sergio should rest in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Leonova walks up and asks Carlos what he thinks about Sergio's condition and Carlos mistakenly says, "Within a few hours he'll be completely bald. I mean he has just a few hours to live." Leonova informs him she doesn't feel well either while Lucia orders Julio to bring out breakfast for the guests.
Julio says that's impossible though because the groceries haven't even arrived yet, so Lucia tells him to bring out the dinner from the other night. Aluaro the colonel has been observing everyone and starts to come up with the conclusion that for some inexplicable reason, everyone is psychologically, but not physically, trapped in the music room. "I'll bet they don't leave the room,” Aluaro says to Aranda as he watches Lucia about to leave the music room with a few of the other women to freshen up, but they don't leave which makes his assumption correct.
Aluaro is worried about this and announces to everyone saying, "After last night's party, none of us made the slightest effort to go home. Why? Was it normal for us to spend the night in this room, violating the most basic precepts of good etiquette? We turned this room into a gypsy campground. Gomez sees nothing wrong with that and says, "Come now, gentlemen. No need to blow things out of proportion. We were all under the spell of the music, the friendly conversation, the good cheer. Nothing to be surprised at." Carlos is curious as well and asks Lucia why she had the butler Julio serve them breakfast in the music room and not in the dining room. Lucia doesn't really know. Blanca realizes she has to leave and head home because she has children waiting for her but before she leaves she is pushed back by Julio as he carts in the breakfast.
While everyone starts to eat Lucia orders Julio to head back to the kitchen to get more spoons but when trying to leave he realizes he also cannot leave the music room. Lucio asks Julio if he feels well, and also notices Blanca crying in the corner because Blanca realizes she cannot leave the music room as well. Carlos notices the butler's strange resistance in carrying out his orders which confirms his and Aluaro's observations that since last night not one of them was able to leave the music room.
The evening eventually arrives and the guests are still in the music room unable to leave, as Sergio's health gets worse and he slips into a coma. Carlos begs Ugalde to help break this lethargy so they can get Sergio out of the home and get some outside help. 24 hours pass and the food in the music room starts to rot and the water starts to stink. Raul says to the guests, "I just don't get it. There's got to be a solution. We haven't all gone crazy, have we?"
All the guests are wondering why no one from outside has yet come to help them, as Ana suddenly become hysterical and starts to scream. Alberto comes up with a theory that the servants are behind this which is why all the servants suddenly ran off and left the moment they all arrived but Edmundo assures Alberto that the servants had their reasons. Raul angrily says, "Yes, the same reasons rats flee a sinking ship." Julio cuts in and says, "If you'll allow me, they didn't even seem to know why they were leaving. An hour before everyone arrived they were fine."
Alberto tells everyone that the most important thing to do is to keep their heads saying, "This situation can't go on indefinitely. We're not under some spell. This isn't some sorcerer's castle. Only by dispassionate analysis can we get to the bottom of our inaction." Raul starts to accuse Edmundo as being the cause of this problem since he opened the doors of his home and invited his guests over for dinner. Leticia steps in and defends Edmundo and calls Raul a fool and slaps him.
A dying Sergio whispers to Carlos, "I'm happy...that I won't see the extermination."
During the next night Sergio dies and so Carlos and Aranda take Sergio's body and place it in a large cupboard, but later in the night Rita sees Sergio's dead hand fall out of the cupboard and she faints.
The house eventually is surrounded by the local police and civilians and for four days the mayor of the town tries to establish communication with all the people who are cut off inside the lavish mansion. He orders the military to install loudspeakers, so if they're alive inside the home they could hear and follow the police's instructions. But the mayor abandoned that idea because for some reason they found it to be absurd. Even though it would be much easier for the local police to just walk to the front door since nothing is stopping them, they for some reason or another cant ,and no one has gone in or have been able to get into the house.
Meanwhile because of no water Julio and several of the other men are trying to axe their way through plaster to puncture a pipe for drinking water. When they finally do, the water sprays out and all the guests hold out empty cups to fill up. Because of lack of food Julio decides to eat balls of paper because it deceives the stomach as Francis and Juana, an incestuous brother and sister start getting annoyed of everyone's little quirks; like for instance the way Ana combs her hair.
The guests start to get quarrelsome, hostile, and hysterical as marital issues between husband and wife start to get out of hand. Edmundo tries to calm everyone down with logic and reason saying, "We're all in the same boat. It wouldn't hurt to be polite to each other." But the now fed-up guests tell him to shut up with Raul saying, "You have to be a real cynic to give advice to your victims." Edmundo pulls his friend Alvaro aside and promises if he could put an end to this misery he would, as the stench of people's hygiene start to get increasingly worse because of the lack of cleanliness.
Meanwhile Leonora's cancer starts to effect her and she becomes extremely ill and asks the doctor Carlos for her comfort. She starts to become delusional and asks Carlos that if she survives this if they both can go to Lourdes saying, "We'll prostrate ourselves at the feet of the Virgin, because she's the one who'll get us out of here. I want you to buy me one of those washable plastic Virgins. You will. Won't you?"
Later, Carlos tells Edmundo that Leonora is dying from cancer, and so Edmundo takes him aside and secretly reveals to Carlos a secret supply of morphine, Laudanine, and Codeine to keep her fit. Edmundo says, "We used to call this room out ‘Theban paradise.' We'd gather some friends once in a while and spend a few unforgettable hours." Carlos asks him why he didn't tell him he had this earlier and Edmundo says it was because it would have been bad if the other guests found out. Carlos tells him, "What was used for pleasure can now be used to relieve pain."
Blanca starts to cry when she is told by Francis that she smells like a hyena, and Francis starts to become hysterical and shouting on how he hates everyone in the room. Juana apologizes for her brother's behavior and Aranda says to Julio, "Everything I've most hated since I was a child: Rudeness, violence, filth...and now are inseparable companions. Death is preferable to this anarchy."
Leonora's fever starts to rise and her delusions become worse. In one of the most surreal scenes in the film she believes she sees a decapitated hand crawling around the room and when it suddenly crawls up her neck, she grabs a knife and tries to stab it. Reality suddenly comes through as the audience realizes that she tried stabbing Rita and everyone starts to question whether they should tie her hands up or not.
During the next night Francis and Juana steal the medicine box, as Alberto sneaks his way in the dark trying to take advantage of several of the sleeping women. One woman wakes up and the lights go on with Alvaro accidentally being accused of sexual harassment.
The mob starts to attack him with only Carlos trying to calm everyone down and keep everyone cool during these horrible and excruciating ordeals. To avoid situations like this to recur in the future, Edmundo comes up with an idea that the women sleep on one side of the room and the men sleep on the other but everyone suddenly gets distracted when they notice a herd of sheep coming into the house and going up the staircase with a few of them even making their way into the music room.
The lavish mansion eventually becomes a media circus, with family members visiting to see the house that their loved ones are stuck in and even a crowd dares a young boy with a balloon to try to go into the home, but the boy quickly turns around and heads back onto the street.
In the meantime the music room looks like 'The Dawn of Man' as broken furniture is chopped up to make fire wood, so they can kill and cook the few sheep that had wandered into the room earlier. Since there is an invisible line the guests can't cross Raul jokes and says to Alberto, "Wouldn't it be a good joke if I sneaked up and pushed you out?'' Alberto says to him, "If you try, I will kill you."
Everyone starts acting like primates and uncivilized beasts as Ana starts to lose her perception of reality as she insanely tells Blanca and Silvia that she had a premonition that night before going to the opera in which she heard a voice tell her about a magical key that can unlock doors to the unknown. She seems to be a practitioner of witchcraft (which explains the chicken feet earlier) and her, Silvia and Blanca perform a ritual that invokes the demons of hell, in which they need to sacrifice a lamb, while lapsing into feverish hallucinations as she loses all grips with reality.
Béatriz and Eduardo, a young couple about to be married, throughout the film have locked themselves in a closet to have sex. Unfortunately the two young lovers are eventually found in the closet dead, as the two of them decided to commit suicide; as the guests than notice a black bear walking around in the open salon.
That evening while everyone is sleeping the camera pans over several of the character's as we overhear their thoughts, fears and desires; most interestingly a dream sequence of a pope high up on the mountains. The cook Camilla, and the servants including the chauffeur Lucas arrive outside the mansion and ask the police chief if there is any new information on the guests inside the home. Lucas tells Camilla, "They say foul odors reach as far as the street."
Primal animal instincts start to brew and violence, mob mentality and cannibalism begin to emerge between the guests as Raul suggests that Edmundo is responsible for their predicament and that he must be sacrificed and eaten if they all ever want to get out of here. Aluaro and Carlos are some of the few that stand in the mobs way of harming Edmundo as Carlos says, "Consider the terrible consequences of your actions. This vile act of aggression does not stand alone. It means the very end of human dignity and reverting to savage animals."
When the mob doesn't listen a physical fight occurs until Edmundo steps forward and says, "There's no need for violence. No use fighting over something so easily achieved." Edmundo offers to take his own life with a pistol but before he goes through with the act Leticia suddenly stops him realizing something extraordinary that she just noticed and she says to everyone, "How long have we been here? I don't know. I've lost track. But think how many times each of us has changed places...during this horrible eternity here. Like pieces on a chess board, moved thousands of times. Even the furniture. We've moved it around a hundred times. But look now. Right now all of us...people and furniture...are exactly where we were that night. Or am I hallucinating again?"
Everyone agrees with her that they are in the exact same spots on the first night they arrived there. Leticia has Blanca play the same sonata piece on the piano that she played the very first night and play just the ending. Obeying Leticia's instructions, the group starts reconstructing the same conversations and movements from the night of the party and when it gets to the exact point when the guests start discussing heading home for the night, they all finally discover they can successfully leave the music room and the mansion. When they finally make their way out of the mansion they are welcomed by loved ones, the media, local servants and police officers.
To give thanks for their salvation, all the guests attend a Te Deum at the cathedral. When the church service is over the preacher suddenly seems to not want to leave the church and instead says, "Why don't we wait until after the faithful have left?" But there seems to be a problem and everyone for some reason including the clergy and the church goers are trapped and are not able to leave the church. The situation in the church is followed by a riot on the streets and the military stepping in to brutally clamp down on the rioters. The last scene shows a pack of sheep entering the church in a row, accompanied by the sound of gunshots.
Luis Buñuel’s ferociously brilliant The Exterminating Angel (1962) is one of his most provocative and unforgettable works. In it we watch a trivial breach of etiquette transform into the destruction of civilization. Not only does this story undermine our confidence in our social institutions but it challenges our powers of cognition and perception, which are shown to be easily distorted by unreliable narratives. Perhaps most threatening, despite the emotional distance from the characters that Buñuel’s satiric vision grants us, we are ultimately forced to see that we in the audience are also objects of his attack.
The plot is easy to summarize, though the characters’ motivations remain mysterious. Buñuel describes it as “the story of a group of friends who have dinner together after seeing a play, but when they go into the living room after dinner, they find that for some inexplicable reason they can’t leave.” For equally inexplicable reasons, after preparing dinner for the guests, all but one of the servants feel compelled to flee the mansion. Trapped in the living room, the guests soon begin to panic. The narrative places us in the same position as the guests, puzzling over why they can’t leave, how they might escape, and what it all means.
Buñuel made this daring film at the end of his eighteen years in Mexico, and it was his only work from that period on which he had complete artistic freedom. In 1946, when he was hired by Russian émigré producer Oscar Dancigers to direct a film in Mexico, Buñuel was already a middle-aged man with a wife and two sons and no job. Though on the verge of getting his American citizenship, he had just been fired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for allegedly being a communist. He moved his family to Mexico and, from 1946 until 1964, made twenty films within the commercial industry, all on small budgets, tight shooting schedules, and with other constraints.
The Exterminating Angel was another story, however, a more personal work, coming at a key point in Buñuel’s career, right before his final return to Paris and immediately following the scandalous reception of Viridiana (1961), his first film made in Spain (although a Spanish-Mexican coproduction) since he had gone into exile. Viridiana was chosen as Spain’s official entry for the Cannes Film Festival, where it won two major awards, but it was condemned by the Vatican for sacrilege and was subsequently banned in Spain. To get distribution elsewhere, the film’s nationality had to be changed from Spanish to Mexican, as Buñuel’s had been. These traumatic circumstances help to explain why Buñuel was so determined to demonstrate what could be achieved with artistic freedom in Mexico, even as an exile.
He was granted that freedom by producer Gustavo Alatriste, the husband of Silvia Pinal, whom Buñuel had cast in Viridiana and put on the world stage. (Buñuel also gave her a key role in The Exterminating Angel.) Alatriste, Buñuel would later recount, had total confidence in him and did not interfere at all. Buñuel, significantly, chose satire for this film, a narrative choice that both departed from his other Mexican works, which were mostly melodramas, and also anticipated what he was later to do in Paris in his final masterworks, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Although in one interview Buñuel lamented he had not pushed the savagery of the guests all the way to cannibalism, in his autobiography he claimed his only regret was that The Exterminating Angel was made in Mexico rather than in Europe.
Buñuel spent most of his life in various forms of exile. He was born in 1900 in the small village of Calanda, in Spain, where (he claimed) “few outsiders ever came,” but he quickly became the consummate outsider himself. Wherever he went, he was forced to adapt to each new context he inhabited: Paris as an international center of modernism in the late 1920s, when the city was drawing experimental artists from all over the world; Hollywood as the heart of filmmaking in 1930, where he observed the conventions for the international sound film being established; Paris in 1936 and New York in 1938 as sites for left-wing activism, where he worked on political documentaries and reedited those by others, until he was ousted by right-wing forces; Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, where he could make commercial movies in his own language and converse with other leftist Spaniards who had fled Franco’s fascist regime; and finally France as the politicized center of the nouvelle vague and European art film in the mid-1960s and 1970s, where he could make films with bigger budgets and finally regain his artistic freedom. These various exiles were motivated by virtually all the reasons artists have historically left home: to satisfy curiosity, the desire for fame, or hunger; to find a more stimulating creative environment or better economic opportunities; to escape oblivion, censorship, political persecution, or death. But each successive period intensified his feelings of being an outsider and his yearning for freedom—two emotions that were at their height at the end of his years in Mexico and that became central themes of The Exterminating Angel.
Buñuel had enjoyed complete artistic freedom on his first two films, made in Paris. Un chien andalou (1929) and L’âge d’or (1930) became avant-garde classics and enabled him and his Spanish collaborator, Salvador Dalí, to join André Breton’s surrealist movement. With the emergence of dramatic changes in France’s film industry and in Europe’s broader social-political field, however, Buñuel’s artistic freedom vanished. The coming of sound led to the development of a studio system in France modeled on Hollywood, making it difficult to produce independent films; and the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936 launched an internecine battle between the left and the right throughout Europe that ultimately forced Buñuel into exile, where artistic freedom remained an elusive phantom.
When Buñuel finally returned to Paris in the 1960s, he cultivated a connection with the French nouvelle vague, which was then the reigning European film movement. Just as he had earlier used a link to Italian neorealism in his Mexican film Los olvidados (1950) to help him regain international attention, he now emphasized the connection with the nouvelle vague in Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Belle de jour (1967), and The Milky Way (1969). But this connection was first made in The Exterminating Angel, which Jean-Luc Godard explicitly acknowledges as a key source in his own satiric film Weekend (1967), a work that also depicts the breakdown of Western civilization.
The Exterminating Angel was already looking toward Europe, but as a pivot it also looked back to Viridiana and to Buñuel’s roots in the avant-garde. Building on Viridiana’s most sacrilegious sequence (the mocking of the Last Supper), The Exterminating Angel is totally structured around a devastating dinner party, which takes place on Providence Street. In both films, the dinner party functions as one of the civilized rituals, used by the church and the bourgeoisie, to disavow man’s animal nature. Buñuel transforms it into a subversive means of exposing human savagery, which helps explain the presence of the live bear and sheep that the hostess has prepared as a surprise but that prove far less bestial than her guests. This satiric use of the dinner party would recur later in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and in the hilarious sequence in The Phantom of Liberty where the significance of the two ends of the digestive process are reversed—turning defecation into a charming social ritual, and dining a shameful act performed in private. In all four films, Buñuel emphasizes the contrast between the dinner party’s primary function of satisfying a need we share with all other animals and the bourgeois ritual that is used to separate the rich from the poor, and the sacred from the profane.
The dinner party is not the only sacrilegious element shared by Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel. Both films mock religion by showing how fear and desperation spawn a belief in false myths and fetishes: in this case, the kabbalah, chicken feet, and a “washable rubber virgin,” as well as the comical Masonic codes and brutal rituals of human sacrifice. Perhaps even more sacrilegious, The Exterminating Angel demonstrates how religion provides an underlying justification for some of the worst injustices of the bourgeois social order. That’s one of the reasons the embattled bourgeois living room inevitably leads to the church.
But unlike Viridiana, which retains a traditional linear narrative, The Exterminating Angel has the kind of experimental structure that Buñuel would push to its limits in his final works and that can also be found in his early surrealist classics. As in Un chien andalou, The Exterminating Angel creates a tension between sensory perceptions and narrative coherence—a dialectic Buñuel had learned from Freud’s dream-work theory, where the narrative drive is distrusted as a form of censorship (or secondary revision) and the underlying images valued as a source of discovery and subversion. In The Exterminating Angel, we spectators are constantly confronted with continuity errors—repetitions, inconsistencies, contradictions—which can be missed if we focus too exclusively on narrative drive. According to Buñuel, “There are around twenty repetitions in the film, but some are more noticeable than others.” Yet an attentiveness to sensory perceptions enables us to see that something is terribly wrong with this narrative, and empowers the character played by Silvia Pinal to propose an ingenious way of escaping the trap.
The Exterminating Angel, like L’âge d’or, emphasizes the extremes of class conflict, which may prove deadly but are treated with comic absurdity. Not only are the bourgeois guests and their servants radically separated by the narrative, which intercuts between insiders and outsiders, but they also appear incapable of identifying with each other. For example, one of the bourgeois characters describes a train wreck in which “the third-class compartment, full of common people, had been squashed like a huge accordion,” and then calmly remarks: “The suffering of those poor people didn’t move me at all.” Yet she also reports how she fainted away with grief “before the grandeur of the death . . . of that admirable prince, who . . . [had] such a noble profile!” Buñuel could already see that disaster brings out the worst in most people.
As in Buñuel’s surrealist documentary Las hurdes (1933), The Exterminating Angel seems to be parodying a genre (this time the disaster film rather than ethnography) before it became fully established. The original title of Buñuel’s screenplay for the film was The Castaways of Providence Street, which evokes a shipwreck. Of course there were some prior examples in both genres before Buñuel’s prophetic parodies—Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) in the case of ethnography, and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) in the case of the disaster film. Yet only Buñuel clearly saw the ideological problems at their core that would be discussed decades later: the biased cultural stance of the ethnographer and his own complicity in colonizing and exploiting his subjects, and the invested judgments of the godlike filmmaker who decides which characters are worthy of surviving the disaster. He realized both genres usually prevent us from perceiving the larger patterns of systemic corruption and injustice, and the power relations between insiders and outsiders, which are the primary focus of Buñuel’s satire in The Exterminating Angel.
Buñuel and his brilliant cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, spatialize the trap in The Exterminating Angel. Cutting between the interior entrapment of the guests and those surrounding the mansion, who are equally incapable of acting, the film also spatializes the sharp class division between insiders and outsiders.
Draped with black curtains, the doorway between the living room and the darkened space beyond draws our attention like a proscenium arch. The camera is frequently positioned at the far end of the empty salon, exaggerating the lonely distance to the crowded room, where the guests mill about like souls lost in limbo. As the camera pans along a row of guests lined up across the arch as if determined to walk through but who then become distracted, it emphasizes the power of the invisible barrier. Yet trash can be thrown into the adjoining empty space, transforming the rest of the house into an uninhabitable territory. This vast wasteland is left to the lumbering bear, which swings from the elegant chandelier, and to the sheep, which are lured into the living room, where they become sacrificial lambs. To perform their own animal functions—sex, excretion, and death—the guests retreat into small closets, enclosures that function as an underworld. These closets are so dark that we can see little of their interior; like the guests, the camera is confined primarily to the living room.
When the thin veneer of civilization breaks down, Buñuel’s bourgeois guests descend into brutal savagery, breaking down walls to get at water pipes, committing suicide and demanding the sacrificial death of the host, and turning to magic, dreams, and narrative for consolation and release. Their mysterious inability to leave the room is experienced as a failure of will—perhaps no more mysterious than the one that prevents citizens from changing the totally corrupt economic, social, and political system on which their own privileges (and the miseries of the servants and other have-nots) are based.
Like the guests, we long for a rational explanation that will free us from the anxiety aroused by such disturbing behavior. This cognitive struggle is dramatized in the plot as one of the guests (nicknamed “the Valkyrie” and “the Virgin”) commands everyone to stand still, for she “perceives” they are all positioned in precisely the same spot as when this strange condition first emerged. But how could they all be in the same place when some of them have already died? Nevertheless, through a communal “faith” in this absurd narrative premise, the guests are miraculously released from the living room, only to have the same kind of entrapment reimposed in another setting. Just as the guests have been trained by their culture to pursue ritual and narrative coherence, we spectators have been trained by earlier sequences that repetition is the key. As in Las hurdes, though the insiders at first seem to be the only ones who are trapped, the film eventually reveals that the trap extends outward to encompass outsiders (including us spectators), who are all caught in the same network of bourgeois corruption, but on a much larger scale.
In 1946 Bunuel was an unemployed husband and father, and after being fired by New York's Museum of Modern Art because of thoughts of being a communist, he decided to take his family to Mexico. Luckly when arriving in Mexico, Bunuel was hired by a Russian emigre to direct a film and it was during this time between the years of 1946 and 1964 that Bunuel made a total of twenty films, that all were made under short schedules and a small budget. It was right after his long exile from Spain, since the Spanish Civil War, legendary Spanish director Luis Buñuel was invited back to his country of origin in 1960 by General Francisco Franco and asked to direct a movie of his choice. Buñuel wrote and directed Viridiania, which also starred Silvia Pinal and was produced by her then husband, Gustavo Alatriste. It was the first film Buñuel made in his native country. Released in 1961, the film sparked controversy both in Spain and the Vatican and was being condemned as being sacrilege, being banned in Spain for 16 years and all existing negatives were ordered to be destroyed. The film, however, won the Palme d'Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival and copies of the film that had been shipped to Paris survived and were subsequently distributed.
Following the Viridiana scandal, Buñuel returned to Mexico, but kept his production team and decided to make another movie starring Pinal. To get distribution, the film's nationality had to be changed from Spanish to Mexican, which explains why Bunuel was so determined to demonstrate what could be achieved with artistic freedom as an exile, in Mexico. The Exterminating Angel was originally called The Outcasts of Providence Street, was renamed The Exterminating Angel after Buñuel picked it from an unfinished play his friend José Bergamín was writing at the time. Bunuel chose to make the film more of a satire which was much different from his other Mexican works which were mostly dramas, and yet these satire films were what he would eventually do in his later years in Paris with his films The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
The Exterminating Angel was released in Mexico in 1962, and was just as controversial as its predecessor Viridinia had been. Buñuel would complete a trilogy of sorts working with Pinal and Alatriste in a third film released in 1965 Simon of the Desert. Bunuel said in his autobiography that his only regret when making The Exterminating Angel was that it was made in Mexico rather than in Europe. The Exterminating Angel's surreal like style has been one of his first surreal films since his silent surreal masterpiece Un Chien Andalou with Salvador Dali in 1929 which featured a series of startling images of a Freudian nature most iconically a cow's eye being slashed open with a razor and L' Age d' Or which also featured shocking images and was read to be an attack on Catholicism. Bunuel even described in his autobiography on how he filled his pockets with stones so he would have something to throw if the audience attacked him when attending the premieres of those silent pictures. Bunuel loved the creative freedom that he had in those early years and the films he made with Dali were considered groundbreaking and the beginnings of the surrealist movement in film, a style in which he continued until his death.
Luis Bunuel is the greatest Spanish Mexican director of all time and one of my personal favorites. I can't think of another director besides Bergman, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Ford, Godard, Wilder, Kubrick and Fellini that created so many masterpieces on so many levels and had their own personal style imprinted on them. One of his most successful films was called Bella de Jour is tells the story about a young woman who is compelled to spend her midweek afternoons as a prostitute while her husband is at work.
Bunuel's firmest conviction was his cruel and destructive view on human existence. He also believed most people were hypocrites, especially the wealthy and comfortable in which he liked to primarily focus on. He also had a streak of pessimism and nihilism; like for instance in his film Viridinia in which a character is saddened by the sight of a dog tied to a wagon and decides to buy the dog to free it; and yet at the same time another dog tied to another wagon goes past the man unnoticed in the background. Luis Bunuel was also known to have life long fetishes and one of them for some reason was the tradition of dinner. Maybe it was his way of emphasizing the contrast between the animalistic primary needs of eating which is a tradition we share with the most inhuman of animals and how the wealthy bourgeoise ritual of eating is a way of separating the sacred and the profane and the rich and the poor.
The Discreet Charm of the bourgeoisie which is considered a companion piece the The Exterminating Angel, tells the story about a bunch of snobby Bourgeois guests who go to a house for dinner and for some unexplained reason never get the chance to eat without being interrupted by some situation, some believable, some absurd. In The Phantom of Liberty he changes the social customs of eating and using the bathroom; for instance it's appropriate to sit at the dinner table and use the toilet to defecate as a social ritual but when hungry you must excuse yourself from the table and eat your food privately in the rest room because it is considered a shameful act. In my favorite film of his Viridinia, he has a group of homeless beggars break into a house and trash it by getting drunk and eating the occupants food as Bunuel purposely makes the scene look like an exact image of the portrait of Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper.'
Luis Bunuel was cynical but he also was playful and mischievous and he was one of the few artists who cared to admit it. The Exterminating Angel was a film Bunuel made that exposed human savagery, which makes sense with the surreal shots of the sheep and bear, which in context begin to look far less primitive and bestial than the humans. Animalistic savagery aren't the only themes Bunuel cares to state in The Exterminating Angel. There are several sacrilegious moments in the film that can be looked at as similar to Viridinia. For instance Bunuel is clearly mocking religion by showing that the instinctual natures of fear and ignorance can lead to the belief of myths, supernatural spells, witchcraft, human sacrifices and the use of chicken feet as a charm for good luck.
He also presents the idea that human beings primitive instincts are the reasons why the character's in the film commit the horrible injustices of the bourgeois order, which why at the end of the film, the characters all seem to leave the music room and quickly head straight to the church. The Exterminating Angel is also different from many of Bunuel's earlier work because of his surreal moments of dreams, hallucinations (like the decapitated hand crawling around the room) and the untraditional narrative structure of repeating certain scenes over again, inconsistencies and continuity errors which can make the film slightly incoherent to an audience. These artistic choices can create a tension and subversion between what the audiences is seeing and what they believe they should be really seeing, which is a surreal psychological choice that is very Freudian-like.
The Exterminating Angel is now considered by the Mexican film critics as the 16th best film of the Mexican cinema, is on film critic Roger Ebert's 'Great Movies' list and is considered one of the best 1000 films by the New York Times. The film is a very dry parody on social etiquette in which Bunuel expresses the idea that in the most stressful of situations, it can bring out the worst in the best people. These themes were similarly explored by the great director Alfred Hitchcock in such films as Lifeboat and Rear Window. And yet you sense more a feel of cruel mockery and exploitation in The Exterminating Angel which reminds me of his mockumentary Land Without Bread which was a short film that was filmed in the most poverty-stricken areas in Spain. The Exterminating Angel was shot by the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and the cuts between the interior scenes that focus on the guests, and the exterior scenes of the police on the streets who are for whatever reason helpless to do anything, creates this imaginary invisible barrier between the uncivilized primates inside and the civilized civilians on the outside. There are also several sexual fetishes within the film, most obvious is the secret closet that is used several times in the story by many of the guests as a way to liberate their most deepest sexual compulsions, whether it involves the acts of adultery, sex, or even suicide and death. Like all surrealist films, no rational explanations are really explained and they aren't meant to be. We won't know exactly why the servants all had the sudden compulsion to want to leave immediately when the guests arrived, what the animals were doing inside the home and where exactly did they come from, why the police or anyone from the outside could not just simply walk inside the mansion, and most importantly why the guests could not leave the music room, and what psychological or philosophical presence was holding them there. Even the end of the film when Leticia who was nicknamed 'the Valkyrie' commands everyone to follow her instructions pointing out that everyone has ended up in the same spot that they were in when they first arrived doesn't make much logical sense. How could all the guests be in the exact same spots when several of them have died throughout the story? I don't believe Bunuel even knows, but I do believe what Bunuel is trying to say with this film, which is that by nature we are all barbaric, weak-minded primates and will have ourselves succumb to whatever silly beliefs we can latch on and conform to, as long as it accepts and comforts us. Bunuel was an Atheist and in his autobiography he states that the worst thing about death was that he would not be able to read tomorrow's newspaper. And so the last shot in the film shouldn't come as a big surprise to audiences as it shows a herd of sheep going inside a church right after the guests cannot seem to leave it. We are so attached to rituals, customs, politics, and beliefs that we will conform to whatever is accepting to be a part of that culture. Which in the long run makes us sad mindless sheep, in which Bunuel probably believed would be the inevitable downfall for us, because it will keep us from evolving and growing as human beings. Maybe what the dying Sergio said in the film was a prophecy of things to come: "I'm happy...that I won't see the extermination."