THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Silvia Pinal,
Jacqueline Andere, Jose Baviera, Augusto Benedico, Luis Beristain
Director: Luis Bunuel
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 93 Minutes
Release Date: February 10, 2009
ďThereís something strange going on.Ē
I may never have encountered a film so easily to summarize and so difficult to dissect as Luis Bunuelís legendary and infamous The Exterminating Angel. This is one of the directorís most talked-about films, and one that Iíve wanted to see for a very long time, but I waited for just the proper opportunity to present itselfÖspecifically, that it would come to DVD from Criterion.
The story is simpleÖa bunch of bourgeois friends gather in a home for a dinner party after a night at the opera and find they cannot leave. Okay, on to the technical specsÖ
All right, all rightÖI canít let myself off that easy. Bunuel was a director who, especially in his later and most heralded years, loved to target the blasť and listless lives of the middle and upper class for satire and criticism, but perhaps never in such a simple, amusing, and sometimes disturbing way as with The Exterminating Angel. Though nothing that propels the plot can exist in reality or be reasoned with in a logical way, Bunuel made the rules, and carried them through to some rather bizarre, funny, and unsettling conclusions.
As the party is being set up, the servants are vacating the house for various reasons. Why would they leave, when servants are most heavily required at such a large social function? Who knows? They have their reasons. My own interpretation: Bunuel is suggesting that the well-to-do often treat their servants like animals, and in this case, maybe like animals, they sense an impending disaster and are fleeing the area.
Bunuelís fascination (or contempt) for societal rituals led him to repeat certain actions in the framework of the film. Some are obvious, such as the guests arriving two times for the night, which might lead some first time views to assume an editing error. Others are more subtle, and might require repeat viewings to identify. The idea is straightforward enough: these are people with empty and repetitive lives who fill their spaces with routine and mannerisms.
The dinner goes off (mostly) as planned, and the guests retire to the drawing room for some coffee, entertainment, and conversation. But no one leaves. Coats are gathered, goodbyes are spoken, but no one makes it through the wide open doorway toward the outside. The one servant who stayed behind enters the room, and then cannot leave, even when the hostess demands silverware.
The group ends up spending the night in the crowded room, but in the morning, it becomes clear they have problems. Why will no one leave? What will they do with a sick man in need of medical attention? And as the days turn into weeks, why canít officials who gather outside the home to help enter the premises? Just what is this imaginary barrier keeping these hapless souls trapped?
Donít look for reason; there is none. A filmmaker could have easily conjured one, like an earthquake leading to a legitimate situation of people being trapped, but that would have been a disaster movie about survival. Bunuel dismisses the obvious and instead goes for the psychological. Thereís no reason these people canít leave, but they donít, even when water and food runs out. And as the situation deteriorates, so do the manners and cultures of these socialites, who begin to turn on one another in their desperate states of mind.
Perhaps the point is that those with status are trapped in their own kinds of prisons, as ornate and luxurious as they may be. Or perhaps itís that despite our conventions and civilization attempts, when all of that man-made organization fails, mankind is still a primitive and volatile being ready to make war on one another rather than using reason and rationality. I remember the part when they capture a lamb strolling the house (a decidedly surreal Bunuel touch, along with a wandering disembodied hand), and use it for food, creating a cooking fire out of furnishings that fills the room with noxious smoke. I guess thereís still a little caveman in us all.
One has to appreciate the biting wit of Bunuel to accept such an absurd premise without screaming at the screen for people to just walk out of the damned room, particularly when people begin to die. Thereís no point to our reaction just like there isnít a point to why these people canít cross a wide open and harmless barrier that exists only in their minds. Maybe the real point is that we create the devices for our own destruction out of our own imaginations.
Then again, maybe all of these points are moot. Bunuel was never one to explicitly state his purpose, and frequently denied that images in his movies were meant as symbols. But perhaps our own weakness is that we canít help but search for them and ascribe meaning where there may not be any. These people are imprisoned by their lack of reason, but maybe logic itself is confining in its own way.
Who can say? Iíll simply suggest that Bunuel has offered plenty of meat for discussion with this picture. We can analyze, critique, compare, contrast to our heartsí desires. Or we could just walk out of our own door and into the rest of our lives without a backward glance. I know what Iím sitting here doing. How about you?
This is a mostly impressive black and white offering from Criterion. There is some evidence of aging here and there, particularly in some darker scenes that show a bit more wear and tear and some extra grain, but there is still a good amount of well-presented detail in the sets and the sea of humanity, which renders with clarity and solid contrast.
There is not a lot of dynamic range in this single track audio, but it serves the classic film suitably well. It neither requires nor makes much demand on your system, but works as well as it needs to.
The first disc contains the original trailer, while the second disc boasts a lengthy retrospective documentary on Bunuel, as well as modern interviews with stars Silvia Pinal and director and admirer Arturo Ripstein.
The Exterminating Angel might be a dark comedy, an unsettling social commentary, a farce, a satire, or a nightmare. Maybe all, or maybe none. At any case, Criterion remains the only studio that should touch Luis Bunuelís films, and continue their great releasing relationship with the late master by offering a terrific look at one of his career landmarks.