Angel Poise Lambs
The Exterminating Angel
(aka El ángel exterminador)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Criterion Collection Region 1
Warning: Spoilers hanging surrealistically
above your head... much like a fish.
Okay then, it’s been nearly two decades since I last saw Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel at the National Film Theatre after first reading about it in a book on Bunuel in my old college library. A friend and I sat there mesmerised by a film, an artistic triumph, that can only be described as what the word “sublime” was invented for. I’ve long considered it one of the three great key works of Buñuel’s career, along with the two he made with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or (yeah, okay, most people would cite other movies as his greatest achievements but, hey, it’s my blog and of the ones I’ve seen by him, these are the three that really worked for me). I’d have to say that now, after having caught up with the excellent Criterion release of this masterwork, the film has certainly not lost any of its charm and doesn’t fail to live up to my hazy but awestruck memory of it.
The majority of the film takes place in a house... in one room mostly... and is set over a number of days and nights (I don’t think the exact timescale is made that implicit). It tells the story of a group of guests who come to a dinner party at a rich couple’s large house. Within the first ten minutes, the majority of the servants in the house all make excuses and leave for the evening, leaving one butler on his own. An atmosphere of trepidation is achieved because the house servants find themselves unable to explain why they feel the need to leave the house, some of them risking their employment should they leave their employers in the lurch. This is kind of moody and uneasy but things start to get surreal... well... "Bunuel-strange" anyway, when two of the servants enter the downstairs hallway and see all the dinner guests arriving en masse. They duck into another room to observe them and the group of dinner guests head on upstairs. Just when the two servants think the coast is clear they try to make their escape, only to be confronted with... all the same dinner guests arriving en masse again and saying exactly the same things as they did when they arrived the first time, before once again exiting upstairs. This time the coast is really clear and these two particular house servants make good their escape.
Things carry on in normal style for a while and the dinner party goes mostly as planned until, without warning, all the guests decide to kip down for the night in the room adjoining the dining room, even though some of them need to be away for other appointments. After the roomful of people spend their first night together, it becomes fairly evident to them the next morning that nobody feels they can leave first... everybody in the room feels compelled to stay in the one small room until somebody else leaves. There is nothing physically holding them there... they just can’t step over the threshold from one room to the next. As their plight becomes evident to them, tempers flare and over the days and possibly weeks that go by, the dinner guests find themselves starving because they feel they can’t leave. The whole thing descends into almost a Lord Of The Flies kind of existence... but set in a small lounge area as opposed to an island.
And all the while the guests feel compelled to stay, people outside, including the police and military, feel unable to enter the house to see what’s going on in there, no matter how much they try. Pretty soon the guests are breaking into the walls to get at the water pipes when they run out of water or, when three lambs walk in who were, along with a bear, family pets, at least one of the lambs is carved up and eaten.
Eventually, the solution to the problem seems to be the kind of game playing that the surrealists always loved so much. One of the guests comes up the idea of recreating the movements of the night when they all felt compelled to stay and this in turn “breaks the spell” as it were and they can leave once more.
After their terrible but self-imposed siege, the remaining guests are invited to a service in a church with a load of other people, to give thanks for their survival. However, after the church service has ended, it becomes clear that everybody in the church feels compelled to stay in there, no matter what. The whole thing starts again. Thus ends a film where nothing much, as such, happens but, nonetheless, it’s one of the most breezy and charming pieces of film making I’ve seen. Buñuel makes this stuff so easy to watch but I can’t hardly recall any of it already, which I find puzzling... it would make a perfect companion piece on a double bill with Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad I reckon.
It’s full of little surrealist touches like the image of a saw, sawing away at cello strings or a severed hand scuttling around the floor like a crab and attacking one of the guests (although the special effects are not anything to write home about) but these little moments of blatant madness are pushed right into the background in what is perhaps the most restrained and least self-indulgent movie I’ve seen Buñuel make... and because of this, the sheer weight of the main premise of a bunch of people just feeling compelled to stay in a room, even though it probably means their death, is given the full gravitas such a brilliantly subtle idea deserves.
The performances by the cast are all superb in this one and the camerawork is actually quite hypnotic. For a movie which is set in such a static environment, there is a lot of sweeping and panning, moving camerawork on show which lends a nice dreamlike quality to proceedings, especially in the earlier parts of the movie. Combined with the “small talk” of the party guests, it quickly pulls you into the atmosphere of the movie and doesn’t let you go until the guests are free from their surrealistic trap. If I was going to recommend any full length feature film of Buñuel’s to anybody who hasn’t seen any of his works, then this would be the one I'd pick (both Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or are shorts of course, although L’Age d’Or is, it has to be acknowledged, a very long short... perhaps something in between the two forms). Criterion’s newish release of this is, as you would expect from Criterion, the obvious way to go with this film on DVD and I’d recommend this one to pretty much anyone who wants to explore the director who is the acknowledged “Father of Surrealism on Film.” Give it a go.