This post is part of a project to watch the Film Bloggers’ 100 Favorite Non-English Films. See my progress here. Note: I have skipped #97 on the list, Satantango, because I have been unable to get it to watch and decided to move on. When I have the opportunity to see it, I will.
The Exterminating Angel
Mexico 1962; dir: Luis Buñuel
starring: Enrique Rambal, Lucy Gallardo, Claudio Brook
screened 1/9/08; VHS
“The best explanation of the film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” – title card
Previous Viewing Experience: I have seen this once before, in June 2006.
Previous Reactions: The first time I saw this, I knew to expect something surreal and weird, because I’d already seen a couple of other Buñuel films; I got pretty much what I was expecting. While I found it a bit slow the first time through, I also found it compelling. I rated it Above Average then.
Brief Synopsis: A group of upperclass dinner guests find themselves unable to leave the drawing room after dinner, held there by an overwhelming apathy and inability to act. Meanwhile, the police and family members have gathered outside the house, unable to enter.
Response: I didn’t find it at all slow or repetitive this time. I was impressed by the strength of the plotting, especially since there’s really so little story to plot. It’s done with remarkable economy without sacrificing any depth, and the last sequence is the perfect cap off, bringing us full-circle and beyond. The film is a scathing attack on the privileged classes, really–a sort of counterpart to Buñuel’s later The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, except instead of a dinner party which can’t get started, The Exterminating Angel is about one that won’t end. I wasn’t as attuned to the surrealists’ hatred of the upperclass the first time I saw this, so I didn’t note with as much care the almost constant distinction being made between the upperclass guests and the servants, who all had an inexplicable desire to leave before the party started, and did so. Throughout the film, the guests make disparaging remarks about lower classes: “I think persons of the lower classes are less sensitive to pain. Have you ever seen a wounded bull? Absolutely numb.” Being confined in the drawing room for days and weeks, they experience what they imagine as the living conditions of the lower classes (though whether they realize the connection is unclear)–as the host of the party, one of the more level-headed in the group, puts it: “What I have hated since my youth, coarseness, violence, filth, are now our constant companions.”
It all becomes very Lord of the Flies-ish by the end, as they turn on each other. It’s much easier to blame someone else for unpleasant conditions rather than do something about it yourself. And this is, finally, their ultimately failure. They fail to act. They lack the willpower. And the most interesting thing is that they know they do! When Nobile, the host, says they need to work up a supreme amount of willpower and all leave the room together, rather than take his advice, they start blaming him for causing the whole problem by inviting them; eventually, they blame their absent families for not rescuing them. The other level-head, the doctor, at one point tells the now nearly barbaric guests that their behavior “is unworthy of us. Gentlemen, don’t forget your breeding.” But that’s the point. Their upperclass status isn’t going to help them in this situation, and it is in fact their apathetic, sophisticated, actionless aristocratic tendencies that threaten to destroy them.
(Since I’ve seen this before and remembered it pretty well, I opted not to include two responses; the response above can be considered a reflective response as well as an immediately-after-viewing response. I said my previous rating was Above Average; after this viewing, I re-evaulate that to Well Above Average. Give it a few more viewings, especially as I see more Bunuel films to add to the conversation, and it may quite easily move higher–especially if I can see a better print.)