The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Written by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel is a director whose films are very well-known for being clever and witty critiques of the Spanish upper class. He’d been making movies for thirty years at this point, so you feel right away that you are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. At its core, The Exterminating Angel is Buñuel pointing out the ways human existence and its institutions are easily fallible. We’re currently living through a pandemic that has uprooted what we believed would protect us. The CDC reconfigures its metrics to make the United States appear as if it has passed through the COVID-19 crisis while people continue to be infected, reinfected, and horrifically die by the tens of thousands a month. America’s leadership comprises a mix of ancient relics and avaricious technocrats that feign calm while frantically hoarding resources for themselves and their wealthy friends behind the scenes. Buñuel was already familiar with this world decades earlier.
A formal dinner party is to be held at the magnificent home of Señor Edmundo Nóbile and his wife, Lucía. Things are off to a strange start as the servants gather their coats and belongings and leave one-by-one. Eventually, only the butler is left to carry out the dinner. The guests arrive and, after dinner, head to the music room to be regaled with beautiful piano music. Around the time they should be going home, they are struck by a compulsion to stay. They put their jackets on, only to take them off again and bed down on couches, chairs, and the floor. The following day, they realize they cannot physically leave this room. There’s nothing physical in their way, but they cannot seem to move beyond the threshold. The guests keep themselves alive on the leftovers from the dinner party, but days and then weeks pass. A crowd gathers outside along with the police and finds they can’t enter the property. It also happens that the Nóbile family has some sheep and a bear on the premises, which proceed to get loose. The sheep could provide food, but the bear means they are sitting ducks pinned in a room where they could be killed easily.
Buñuel’s life was in an interesting place when he made The Exterminating Angel. The Spanish director had lived in Mexico for eighteen years until 1964. He’d found his way down to Mexico in 1946 when his bid for American citizenship fell through, and he was fired from the MoMa because he showed communist sympathies. Buñuel was a Spaniard twice removed from his own country, but exile had been a part of his life since he was a youth. The growth of right-wing movements in Europe bounced him from Spain to France and then to the United States to Mexico. In Mexico, Buñuel would make friends with fellow Spanish exiles who’d fled Franco’s brutal fascist regime. For many of them, including Buñuel, this would mark the first time many had ever had true artistic freedom, able to pursue the projects they were passionate about. So while it was filmed in Mexico, The Exterminating Angel is about European aristocracy and the institutions that uphold them.
Buñuel saw many “civilized” rituals in society, especially those of the wealthy class, as a mask to obscure the savagery within. He could see how their wealth and power had been built on brutalizing workers and exploiting the vulnerable by hoarding resources. By starting with a fancy dinner party, he primes the audience for the dramatic reversal, the guests become violent towards each other as desperation sets in, and they find their money and power cannot solve the problem. The connection between economic institutions and ideology leads directly to the Church, an institution whose primary purpose is to remind people to be subservient, that their true reward lies in Heaven. The servants packing up and heading out in the opening moments underlines how the working class should work to preserve itself rather than continue propping up hollow fetes for the bourgeois.
As the guests are forced to contemplate their fates, we get pieces of revealing dialogue that show how distant they feel they are from “ordinary people.” One guest describes a train accident where a third-class car was “squashed like a huge accordion.” She talks about how she felt nothing for the commoners who were dead or dying as a result. They weren’t even human to her. However, a member of royalty was killed in the crash as well, and she talks about how she fainted from the horror of that loss. I was reminded of the thoughts & prayers crowd or the bizarre jingoistic American response to the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Here in Europe, people are strong in solidarity with Ukrainians; hundreds of thousands have been housed throughout the Netherlands. What I don’t see is the disturbing bloodlust Americans express online about wanting to not just end the war but kill Russians on Russian soil. Western cultures fawn over celebrities, but the typical person is merely a blip, not worthy of their interest. They want to deify Zelensky because a cartoonish world with superheroes is more comforting to think about than one where safety is an illusion, and people like you are squashed just like the ones on the bus. Money, power, the correct zip code, people believe these things will keep them safe forever. Things like COVID, future pandemics, and the seemingly inevitable environmental collapse of the planet prove otherwise.