Classic Musings: Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel

Throughout the history of literature and other artistic mediums, the concept of "losing everything to understand anything" has been addressed in countless fashions. Medieval literature dating back as far as "The Canterbury Tales" and "Everyman" incorporates this ideal, while classic and modern cinema like Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, David Fincher's Fight Club, and even TV's "Lost" close in on similar ideals with broad tonal differences. But with Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, arguable the Spanish/Mexican auteur's most challenging work, this concept is taken to a completely different level. He not only illustrates it through a socially relevant portrait, but also emphasizes the complexity of the human spectrum through a large group of people who grudgingly endure this transformation. Buñuel's self-written and directed critique is a fascinating blend of spiritual fantasy and class deconstruction, one that stretches its evocative nature well beyond the claustrophobic confines of its ingenious setting.

The Exterminating Angel's plot is deceptively simple: after an upscale dinner party filled with snooty, criticism-laced banter, a large group of socialites adjourn to a sitting room for after-meal conversation and music. They continue their bold-faced projections of self worth amid their banter, trying to hold up their distinguished theatrics for the sake of social stature as the night grows older. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, some of them have the urge to leave -- but can't, both through happenstance desires to stay and a physically nauseating sensation when they attempt to force themselves out. Instead the guests continue their conversations, find strategic points in the room, and inexplicably drift off to sleep without the consent of the party's host and hostess. Believed to be an aggressive and intentional faux pas, they indulge their guests for the sake of saving face; but as the morning comes and the sensations continue, they all begin to realize that there's an aggressive, supernatural force at play that aims to corner them in this situation until an undetermined point and time.

Little did they know that this room would quickly turn into something of a celestially-imposed intervention site, a space deemed fit for Darwinism and close-quartered social collapse to take place. As their pompous façades strip away and their hungry bodies begin to smell from a lack of opportunity to keep up hygiene, their raw personalities begin to surface. At that point, The Exterminating Angel turns into both an entrenching analysis on the maddening nature of hopelessness and an enlightening exercise in self-identification. The prospect couldn't be more streamlined: trap a group of misguided social people into a confined location and let them fend for themselves without food, water, or the plumpness of their wealth. By keeping the focus on a single group of vagabond-like people in an awkwardly-shaped room, it places strong emphasis on the unappreciated nature of the world outside its walls. This controlled setting also keeps The Exterminating Angel's behavior at a remarkably convincing level, almost positioning us as a literal fly on the wall as we witness this phenomenon.

In the same vein as Lumet's fantastic 12 Angry Men, Buñuel makes the most of this claustrophobic scenario by creating a miniature war among typecasts once the hardened layer of societal importance washes off the characters. Some don't take kindly to this environment, like the selfish "profiteer" brother who intends on hording resources, while others attempt to roll with the punches and try to figure out the reason behind their invisible imprisonment. Most of them, however, seem intent on finger-pointing, which opens a door for The Exterminating Angel's stance on the dangers of misguided mob mentality. Human nature's infectious sheep-mindedness is attacked vigorously in this pitch-black satire, once actual human beings come out of the woodwork. And, as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that their true selves thrive upon a sheep-eat-sheep state of mind -- both in literal and figurative senses.

Specific character mannerisms are still important in Buñuel's film, but more for the negative energy that they generate than the positive. As it stands, this situation quickly evolves into a weeding-out process -- almost like a large-scale Petri dish -- to show what can and can't survive under the harshness of society's desperation. Within this erratic environment, a pair of shy, seemingly taboo lovers struggle with the unique situation of searching for quiet corners to lie and love, while others must try and endure the maddening effects of hallucination and hysteria in a growingly volatile environment. Some of them heighten their aggressiveness, while others become more recessive -- elements of the dominance structure in nature. The Exterminating Angel escalates into a surprisingly primal film, one that strips away long-slaved-over illusions of class and vanity from its focal subjects to show a portrait of what two-faced socialites resort to in the direst of situations.

Theories and ideas are one thing, but putting them into action in a manner that truly affects its audience is another. Buñuel, through delicately-scattered surrealist images and a top-notch script, executes The Exterminating Angel with pitch-perfect, mesmeric tones. He crafts his ambitious-yet-simple picture into a meditative parable, one chock full of cunning imagery that ties together a wide gradient of beliefs and impressions. But, though straightforward in design, it's as complex and thematically rich as the viewer wills it to be. Sheep share boundless significance, painkillers become a symbolic commodity, and even the ravings of an elderly, dying man serve as a bold foreshadowing mechanism that only completely reveals itself much later on. He claims that he's glad he won't witness the "extermination", which instantly causes us to think of Buñuel's title, think of the situation, and size up both for cinematic puzzle-solving.

The Exterminating Angel is endlessly fascinating due to its labyrinthine concepts, but it's also an enigma compelling enough to spark actual desire to witness the material many times over. Buñuel knows how to have fun with its singularly-focused locale -- much like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope -- while also keeping the weight of their banter lively and pertinent. He also comes together with regular cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa to photograph the film in a way that keeps our eyes yearning for exposition, causing our glances to dart every which way about the room for any extra clues regarding the force's mystery. Within its architecture are the numerous "prisoners", all of which are played with precision and charisma by a broad range of actors -- most notably being Buñuel mainstays Silvia Pinal (Viridiana) as the "Valkyrie" Leticia and Claudio Brook (Simon of the Desert) as the steward. But it's hard to single out any of the cinematic elements within The Exterminating Angel, essentially because they all seamlessly come together to focus on Buñuel's core material. What they result in is an astoundingly complete mystery that will linger with you for days, one that somehow brings spiritual and societal concepts together for a mammoth of a thought-provoking masterpiece.

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