The Exterminating Angel (1962)

*. The Spanish version of The Exterminating Angel begins with a warning: “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” This has to be carefully parsed. It does not say that the film has no explanation, just that “no explanation” is the best explanation “from the standpoint of reason.” And reason may not be the best entry point anyway.
*. I like to read the statement in these qualified terms because otherwise I think it can only be viewed as highly disingenuous. The Exterminating Angel is a fable — a group of upper-class operagoers find they can’t leave a dinner party — and a fable’s literal meaning is usually about as banal as it gets. The story isn’t real by any canon of realism, so what then does it mean?

*. The usual line as to the film’s meaning is that it depicts a “reversion to savagery”: the “thin veneer” of civilization giving way to our base animal nature. What better representation of this than a dinner party? Everyone is so polite and refined and on their best behaviour, but it is all an act. Barbarism lies just below the surface. This was, to take a more recent example, the point of Herman Koch’s The Dinner (which was filmed three times, in 2013, 2014, and 2017). How beastly is the haute bourgeoisie, especially at feeding time.
*. I’m sure that is a fundamental point Luis Buñuel is making in The Exterminating Angel. It’s just that it’s not a very interesting one and I don’t think it’s all that’s going on.
*. In itself it’s a common theme. I already mentioned The Dinner, but we might also think of High-Rise. The dinner guests roasting sheep over the campfire at the end here reminded me of Laing roasting a dog on a spit at the end of that movie. But here’s the thing: given the circumstances the guests find themselves in, should we be judging them so harshly? Unlike the dining parties in The Dinner they aren’t being hypocrites. They genuinely believe in good manners and keeping up appearances. It’s just that after a few days (or months) cooped up in the same room together they start to get on each other’s nerves, their clothes get ragged, and they smell bad. Can you blame them for any of this? Strip basic amenities away from any of us and of course we’re going to “revert” to a more primitive, barbaric state. Does that expose us as being bad people?
*. So we come back to the question of interpretation (which I’ll use in preference to explanation). What is going on here? In trying to answer that question I’ll look at two of the issues that usually get the most attention in this regard, the question of why the dinner guests can’t leave and the use of repetition.

*. Why can’t the guests leave? It’s hard not to think they’ve been selected for their class. The servants, equally inexplicably, all want to get out of the house as soon as possible. But once the invisible force field has gone up it’s clear that there’s no physical reason any of the guests can’t just leave. This isn’t Escape Room. They seem more stuck by the force of their own inertia. They don’t want to leave, at least in the early going. They find excuses and rationalizations for staying, and even at the end many of them play along with Leticia’s idea for breaking the spell as though they’re just going through the motions. Which is exactly what they are doing.
*. Is there some significance to the fact that Leticia (Silvia Pinal) is a foreigner? That somehow she doesn’t belong in the trap with the others? For Roger Ebert “the dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac.”
*. I think this is a possibility. My sense though is that the explanation is more general. I think what keeps them stuck is that force of inertia I mentioned. In Dante’s Hell the sinners don’t want to escape from their punishments because it’s part of their sin that they just want to keep on doing what they’re doing. The upper class of any society prefers some discomfort, up to and including their own destruction, to anarchy and the loss of their position of privilege. Hence, as bad as their situation gets here it’s still preferable to the alternatives. So they don’t want to leave.

*. This is also the reason repetition is used throughout. The guests might even be aware that they’re saying and doing the same things over and over. But that’s the way they like it. I think it’s wonderful how they “escape” only by repeating their own actions as literally as possible, which in turn is no escape at all since it just means they’re going to find themselves back in the same situation.
*. The guests begin praying to God, but then move on to mysticism and black magic. But I think Buñuel’s point here is that this doesn’t constitute any real moving on. They’re just different, though equally meaningless, belief systems that, in turn, reflect a lack of imagination and moral laziness. The guests don’t actually want to believe in a higher power or make any changes in their life.
*. I want to go back to something I said earlier about not judging the guests too harshly since they’re in a situation where you’d expect everyone to behave badly. I don’t think I’d be any worse than most of them. But the other point to raise in their defence is that people from all walks of life outside the church are similarly afflicted. No class is an island, and while they may suffer different fates and be impelled by different motives, what happens to the upper class affects (or trickles down to) the rest of society as well. Inertia is a social disease.
*. That is, I think the final point being made. The ruling class want to divorce themselves from the rest of society. It’s like today’s rich wanting to live in gated communities or private islands, with the workers kept out of sight (or perhaps replaced by robots or some other form of cheap labour. What they complain about the most is all the people they’re stuck with. The torment of not being able to be someplace alone. Hell is other people. But there’s no escape from this part of the human condition. The guests — being social animals by nature, like all human beings — are just another flock of sheep herding together and sticking to traditions that are only fossilized instincts. So I don’t judge them harshly, while at the same time having no sympathy for them at all.

2 thoughts on “The Exterminating Angel (1962)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think Bunuel definitely had a thing for the way people and whole cultures get caught in rut of both action and belief. And I think he was on to something there.

      Reply

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