erasing clouds

Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Thirty-Two: The Exterminating Angel

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

This is the second Great Movie entry from Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who directed many notable pictures over a lengthy career. After working with Salvador Dali on the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel went on to create The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire later in his career. After reviewing Belle du Jour in May, I’m now moving five years back to 1962 for another surrealist head-scratcher. The Exterminating Angel is not as well known as some of Bunuel’s other works, but it has received substantial critical acclaim. It was nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Bodil Award for the Best Non-European film. After struggling with the restrictive government in Spain, Bunuel worked in Mexico and enjoyed the relaxed film culture. This friendlier environment helped him to craft a picture that defies any easy explanation or meaning.

The story involves a large group of wealthy socialites who arrive for a dinner party at a large mansion. Eventually settling in the living room and conversing in dull swipes at the other guests, they appear ready to end the night. But a strange, inexplicable thing happens. No one is able to leave, and the guests continue to find reasons to avoid exiting the room. They eventually decide to sleep at the house, which is not a normal action for these snooty visitors. As the morning arrives, everyone continues to avoid stepping out of the room. A perceptive man recognizes this fact and tries to walk out through the archway, but his mind will not allow it. What is happening to these people? As they settle in and try to overcome this dire predicament, we quickly realize that few people actually like each other. Their attendance is all about appearing at the latest social function, and it becomes maddening for them to spend additional time with such sour individuals.

Bunuel excels when crafting mind-bending scenes involving random animal appearances and strange actions by the guests. As they drift into animalistic behavior and possible madness, he reveals the brutal tendencies that exist behind the uppity veneer. He satirizes the ruling class in Spain by showing their nasty behavior when placed in unexpected peril. During one stunning sequence, sheep walk into the room, which brings the starving guests into a vicious frenzy. The once-refined people quickly devour the animals and cook them using the materials present in the room. Standing outside the structure, the press, soldiers and other onlookers also are unable to enter the building. They stand transfixed at the strange situation but remain outside the structure. In similar fashion to our current obsession with celebrity train wrecks, the visitors wait for something to happen because the inhabitants are rich. Bunuel keeps everything subtle, though, and the film could work just as a strange depiction of people stuck in a room. That’s the story in the most basic sense and provides good entertainment, but great satire does exist just beneath the surface.

Roger Ebert describes The Exterminating Angel as a “mordant view of human nature” and discusses Bunuel’s effective use of satire. This picture will almost certainly frustrate some modern viewers who expect a tidy explanation for the guests’ plight. Even the solution to their situation makes little sense and adds to the surrealistic atmosphere. After putting his characters through hell, Bunuel even has a final trick up his sleeve that reveals another major institution to satire. I expected this picture to be confusing, and was surprised at my enjoyment of the strange dilemma. Although Belle du Jour has received more acclaim and viewer interest, I actually prefer this picture, which moves even further away from the realm of conventional cinema. It might not be the strongest picture in the series, but has enough originality to warrant the Great Movie status.

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2007 erasing clouds