My introduction into the strange world of Luis Buñuel began with El Ángel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962), and it was a case of love at first sight. Never had I been exposed to such a wonderful blend of realistic drama imbued with a slight but perceptible undercurrent of Surrealistic imagery, propelled relentlessly forward by absurdist logic. In my mind, the coherence of the film was never in doubt, but how and why it was so I could not have said at the time. The following is an attempt to deliver an explanation without destroying the mystery of the film and the first flush of love it awoke in me for Buñuel’s wonderful talent.
The Exterminating Angel marks something a turning point in Buñuel’s career. After the Surrealist classics which he partly co-authored with Salvador Dalí, Un chien Andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), Buñuel’s scenarios of the late ’40s and ’50s were generally straightforward. Nevertheless, they also contained many striking and disturbing Buñuelian touches: lyrical dream sequences, fetishistic shots of legs and feet, as well as cutaways to animal and insect life, as if he were indeed the etymologist he considered himself to be. It’s not until The Exterminating Angel in 1962 that he begins to introduce stylistic devices more in line with his aims. Where previously he had been restricted to following more conventional lines of narrative, in this film he pushes the plot device to its limits, compressing and extending real time, and incorporating many variations on repetition to reflect the non-rational progression of impulses that come to the surface during the course of the evening’s soirée (1).
Buñuel’s consistently poetic approach to cinema means that he saw neo-realistic films as sometimes very good but on the whole incomplete: “the poetry, the mystery, all that completes and enlarges tangible reality, is utterly lacking” (2). So for him a glass of wine is never just a glass of wine, as it is for the neo-realists, and for many other filmmakers who generally try not to disturb their audience’s peace of mind by presenting hackneyed dramas that could very well be “sequels to everyday life”. For Buñuel, “this same glass, seen by different human beings, can be a thousand different things, because each person pours a certain dose of subjective feeling into what he is looking at” (3). This is because no one sees things as they really are. This method, of showing how objective reality is tinged with fantasy, dream and memory, is exactly what Buñuel practices in The Exterminating Angel. He creates a scenario that shows us a real milieu and populates it with characters that exhibit specific behaviours. Each character, through the apparently inexplicable circumstance of their confinement, experiences the situation differently, revealing their own idiosyncratic beliefs, neuroses and torments. But, in addition to this, the entire film itself is filled with a good dose of subjective feeling from its director. Many memories from Buñuel’s own life find their way into the movie, from the woman who combs her hair on one side only, to the ladies who see mountains and eagles fly past when they relieve themselves in the makeshift lavatory.
Not all critics, however, see the film the way I do, and it always surprises me to read negative responses or qualified criticism, like this passage from Manny Farber’s 1969 piece on Buñuel:
His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints, conceived by a literary old-world director detached from his actors but infatuated with his cock-eyed primitive cynicism. It’s this combination of detachment and the infatuated-with-bitterness viewpoint, added to a flat-footed technique, that produces the piercingly cold images of The Exterminating Angel. (4)
Yet, even when Farber does not seem to admire the film or the director he is critiquing, he manages to extract something essential nonetheless while finding it personally distasteful: “it is the sinister fact of a Buñuel movie that no one is going anywhere and there is never any release at the end of the film. It’s one snare after another, so that the people get wrapped around themselves in claustrophobic whirlpool patterns.” (5) Farber wonders what force is driving this newer, more modern Buñuelian aesthetic: “The moral lesson is no longer encircled, and the tone is no longer so obvious: instead of criticising outward conditions, it points inwards” (6). So need we read Buñuel like this? With the powers of hindsight, we can see where this film stands in relation to later Buñuel classics such as Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972) and Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977), and, in light of what was to come, it might be more constructive to question the accepted reception of the earlier films.
The charge of cruelty would often fall at Buñuel’s feet. The director himself was dismayed to read on a poster in Paris: “By Luis Buñuel… the Cruellest Director in the World” (7). Indeed, although André Bazin made particular note of this tendency to cruelty in his review of Los Olvidados (1950), he never points the finger at the director: “It is absurd to accuse Buñuel of having a perverted taste for cruelty” (8). Instead, the cruelty on display is that of the human condition. In a slightly different vein, Gilles Deleuze reads Buñuel as exploring the depths of the “originary” world, where the tendency is to “bring everything together in a single and identical death impulse” (9), providing us with a more substantive reason for why such cruelty emerges. Buñuel describes with accurate detail a social milieu, as Deleuze observes, but “never has the milieu been described with so much violence or cruelty” (10). What gives Buñuel’s descriptive images such force, for Deleuze, is the way in which he makes features from daily life relate to the rumbling depths of the “originary” world. To cite only one example from the film, one aristocratic woman superstitiously carries around a pair of chicken feet in her purse. When we first see them they look strange, to say the least, but when the characters are pushed to extremes, the depths of her conviction in such superstitions are revealed, taking her to the brink of sanity. But her beliefs are no more nor less valid, right or wrong, or capable of dealing with the situation than any of the other guests’ convictions or impulsive reactions.
It’s possible to imagine a scenario in which the guests’ confinement to the room is narratively justified. A wartime drama like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) explores a similar situation in which a group of people are confined to one location and have to learn how to survive the ordeal. There is a logic to what happens to the characters in The Exterminating Angel in the course of their confinement, and the state of the guests at the end of their ordeal is not dissimilar to the transformation of the occupants of Hitchcock’s lifeboat. In fact, the working title of Buñuel’s script was The Castaways of Providence Street. He was fascinated by groups of isolated individuals and had always wanted to film a version of Lord of the Flies. Films like Robinson Crusoe (1954), La mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden, 1956) and The Young One (1960) explore themes of individuals isolated from society. The Exterminating Angel, however, removes any narrative pretext for such isolation; so the fact that Buñuel chooses not to provide one has to be taken into account. The force keeping the characters confined is internal, and yet it affects all of the guests equally. It is by no means a personal or interior impediment in a psychological sense. The repetitions, the strange behaviours are all external facts, they are not visions “in someone’s mind” but objective, in the same way that dreams create the sense of an external scene, embodying and objectifying the internal psycho-somatic forces and pulsations of the dreamer.
So is the premise of the film so wholly inexplicable? Not for Buñuel: “basically, I simply see a group of people who couldn’t do what they wanted to do – leave a room” (11). As Buñuel himself admits, this dilemma, the “impossibility of satisfying a simple desire”, appears in many of his films. It just takes a variety of forms. The havoc wrecked by our internal drives and impulses, often entails a disturbance in time, to the point that time might even stand still. Time comprises different gears and moves faster or slower depending on many factors. Proust uses the metaphor of a car to describe how on any given day he will travel faster or slower depending on his mood: “there are mountainous, arduous days, up which one takes an infinite time to climb, and downward-sloping days which one can descend at full tilt, singing as one goes” (12). Without doubt, the inhabitants of the drawing room are subject to one steep and arduous climb. Time dilates with each movement and contracts with every configuration; expanding from the moment they find they can’t leave, extending into months of incarceration until the guests miraculous reassembly into the places they held when the nightmare first began.
Arturo Ripstein was on set as an aspiring 18-year-old filmmaker observing Buñuel direct. Buñuel was moving everyone around the set like chess pieces; he knew precisely what he was doing although nobody else did. Ripstein explains it this way: “Time was abolished so only space happened in this film. Time was just a circle and when space becomes time the thing is solved.” (13) So once they realise they have unwittingly returned to the same positions they occupied when their confinement began, we see them again as they were before; we can even show them now side-by-side, with a slight variation in camera angle that Buñuel would insist upon, punctuating the fact that it’s not an exact repetition. What is striking when we do this is how the “originary” undercurrents of social existence are revealed not after a long interval, wherein social practices slowly unravel to reveal the primitive urges underneath, as in Lifeboat, but at one and the same time. Social convention, and indeed religious belief, cannot save us from this fact.
So my approach is to see Buñuel as a Nietzschean, a physician of civilisation; not in the sense that he is in favour of one mode of life over another (communism verses capitalism, etc.). He’s also not on the side of the revolution brewing at the end of film when the protagonists once more become prisoners, this time in the cathedral. But rather, the return to the beginning, the very mode of repetition, is a recognition of the cruelty of Time, the steep slope that inclines inexorably from the radical beginning to the absolute end whether we are rich or poor, young or old, devout or debased. This is indeed a very good reason to read a certain coldness into Buñuel’s art, but in it I also see a golden tinge to each pristine image. There is a recognition of and a sympathy for the often overlooked torments of the soul, and whether or not we find a kind of happiness in the end, a Buñuel film, like the dream life of every human being, will always be an expansive experience, singular and unique.
That which we experience in dreams, if we experience it often, is in the end just as much a part of the total economy of our soul as is anything we “really” experience: we are by virtue of it richer or poorer, and finally are led along a little in broad daylight and even in the most cheerful moments of our waking spirit by the habits of our dreams. (14)
- The premise of the film is well known, and I suppose we have Gil Pender to thank for it. Gil is the time-travelling would-be novelist played by Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s comedy Midnight in Paris (2011). He lives in the contemporary world but travels back to 1920s Paris and there he suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel to the fictionalised filmmaker: “Mr Buñuel, I had a nice idea for a movie for you: a group of people attend a very formal dinner party and at the end of dinner when they try to leave the room they can’t”. The gag of course is that Buñuel himself is left asking, “Why can’t they leave? I don’t understand; what’s holding them in the room?” The real Buñuel would make at least 20 films after this imagined intervention before he eventually tried his hand at this seemingly implausible plot.
- Luis Buñuel, “Poetry and Cinema”, The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism, ed. Joan Mellen, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, p. 109.
- Buñuel, “Poetry and Cinema”, p. 109.
- Manny Farber, “Luis Buñuel 1969”, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, Da Capo Press, New York, 1998, p. 275.
- Farber, p. 277.
- Farber, p. 279.
- Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath, trans. Abigail Israel, Fontana, London, 1985, p. 238.
- André Bazin, “Cruelty and Love in Los Olvidados”, The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock, ed. François Truffaut, trans. Sabine d’Estrée, Seaver Books, New York, 1982, p. 56.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p. 130.
- Deleuze, p. 125.
- Buñuel, My Last Breath, p. 239.
- Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Vol. I, Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Random House, London, 2005, p. 470.
- See “Arturo Ripstein About The Exterminating Angel”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajmi_Iq_liU (from 7:55).
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, London, 1990, p. 116.
El Ángel Exterminador/The Exterminating Angel (1962 Mexico 93 mins)
Prod Co: Producciones Alatriste Prod: Gustavo Alatriste Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza Phot: Gabriel Figueroa Ed: Carlos Savage Art Dir: Jesús Bracho Mus: Raúl Lavista
Cast: Silvia Pinal, Jacqueline Andere, José Baviera, Augusto Benedicto, Luis Beristáin, Antonio Bravo