The Exterminating Angel: Exterminating Civilization
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, is what we are ultimately forced to see: that we in the audience are also objects of his attack.
The plot of The Exterminating Angel is easy to summarize, though its characters’ motivations remain mysterious. Buñuel described 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 Óscar 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 there, all on small budgets and 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 a major award, 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 with the production at all. Buñuel, significantly, chose satire for this film, a narrative decision that both departed from his other Mexican works, which were mostly melodramas, and 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 that he had not pushed the savagery of the guests all the way to cannibalism, in his autobiography he claims 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 forties and fifties, 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-sixties and seventies, 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—conditions 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, both 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 creative 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 sixties, he cultivated a connection with the 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, in The Exterminating Angel, 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 is reversed—turning defecation into a charming social ritual, and dining into 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, 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. Like 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.
Like 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 earlier examples in both genres before his prophetic parodies—Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) in the case of ethnography, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) in the case of the disaster film. Yet only Buñuel clearly saw the ideological problems at the core of those genres 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 that they 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 his satire in The Exterminating Angel.
Buñuel and his brilliant cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, spatialize the trap in The Exterminating Angel. Cutting between the interiorially trapped 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 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 interiors; like the guests, the camera is confined primarily to the living room.
When the thin veneer of civilization disintegrates, 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 systems 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” that 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.