Lost in the Movies: The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel

Just finished watching this movie for the first time. I'd anticipated it for a while, but perhaps I picked an inopportune moment to watch it - I was by and large left cold. Then again, maybe it's not just a matter of mood; I've seen at least a dozen Bunuel films at this point, and while I like some more than others (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, one of my earliest Bunuels, still strikes me as the most amusing and entertaining) I'm not in love with any of them, and the master filmmaker's charms largely allude me. I don't find his work especially disorienting as surrealism, nor do I find his effects particularly shocking - while watching a Bunuel film, scenes pass before me and while I can appreciate the "subversion" on an intellectual level, viscerally I just don't find them very subversive (or are they supposed to be subverting my sense of subversion?).

I love the premise of Exterminating Angel - that a dinner party of snobbish and catty sophisticates find themselves trapped in a drawing room, apparently by their own lethargy; weeks pass as they starve, sweat, stink, and go mad, yet they can't bring themselves to leave. I found individual images and fleeting moments striking: the severed hand that leaps and darts through the darkened room (only to change into a woman's hand with a sharp cut when the sequence is revealed as a hallucination), the sheep passing through the mansion's grand entrance as Bunuel's camera gracefully tracks them (animal moments tend to be highlights of Bunuel films for me: another favorite is the random emu in the otherwise unimpressive-to-me Phantom of Liberty). And Silvia Pinal was captivating, especially in her final, desperate speech to the bourgeois prisoners.

Yes, writing about these moments makes me like them, and by extension the film, all the more - so why then, while watching, do I feel apathetic and antsy? I think I'm astute enough to recognize there's something there I'm not quite getting, but for whatever reason I just tend to find Bunuel's films underwhelming. I wonder, do they grow with re-viewing? I believe I've seen most only once. Anyone else share a similar reaction? I respect Bunuel, and in the abstract I can admire the work, but a fair amount of the time I feel just like the guests in this movie, trapped in a room I can't get out of.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Sam Juliano said...

Ah Joel, I am sorry to hear this, but as you always come to the table with a discerning eye and a stellar mose of expression, I can't cry foul. I can only say that I took the subversion here as the central underpinning of the satire, which in this film works as well as his best. THE DISCREET CHARM, which you hail, is modesty entertaining, but isn't in a league with EXTERMINATING ANGEL, VIRIDIANA, EL, SIMON OF THE DESERT, LOS OLVIDADOS, L'AGE D'OR and a few others, but fair enough. We have had a massive discussion on this film (blasphemy and all) at WitD, so I won't get any deeper than my general response here for now, but I'm glad you appreciate the premise and pinal's performance.

What I did like particularly though in this film was the deliberate repetition of scenes, which of course is central to the theme.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Joel, I empathize. While relishing the ridicule of the bourgeois in Bunuel's oeuvre and the sheer audacity of L'Age d'Or and Un Chien Andolou, there is for me in his films an alienating glass wall. While my conception of hell is being unable to leave a cinema continuously screening Last Year at Marienbad...

MovieMan0283 said...

Hmmm, Blogger does not seem to have succeeded since that was even longer than the first one!

MovieMan0283 said...

Blogger has a habit of crunching up my longer-winded comments and making me start afresh. So, to rehash and streamline all at once: I definitely agree with that "glass wall" sentiment of Tony's, but to be fair I could certainly see myself reconsidering this and other Bunuels on re-viewing. I certainly don't rule out the possibility. That said, Bunuel's films are so often praised in terms of their visceral effect that I can't help but lodge an objection here.

As for Last Year at Marienbad, I actually quite liked it when I first saw it but that was because I managed to throw out any intellectual considerations and take it purely as a hypnotic visual and aural trip. I'll be interested to see if I feel the same on re-viewing; after seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour again, I found it disappointingly pretentious - but then, Last Year doesn't quite run the risk of taking itself so seriously, I think.

Sam, I can see what you mean about Discreet Charm in the sense that the films you mention are a bit more austeure, more visually pure, sharper in that 60s way which was lost a bit with the "freer" style of the 70s, which DC more than represents. Still, I have to admit that I found DC more sheerly enjoyable than many of the other films you mention. El and Los Olvidados remain unseen by me (and will remain so for the near-future, as they're unavailable on Netflix) while Simon of the Desert is in the same queue which brought me Exterminating Angel (and the other 60s films mentioned on this blog). Should be seen soon.

One last point: some of Bunuel's satire of the bourgeoisie seems a bit dated. What seems to signify the smug elite of today is less the stuffiness represented in his films, and more a mixture of arrogant privilege and self-serving "cool": they are what David Brooks called the "bobos" - bourgeois bohemians. Often the same arrogance is present, but it's coupled with a self-serving sense of hipness, which make it all the more infuriating. Hence Bunuel's portrayal of the uptight, hypocritical upper classes does not resonate quite as powerfully for me today.

Stephen said...

Very good review.

I was underwhelmed too. I thought it was mildly amusing.

I would have thought that the way to satirise a group of snobbish, lazy, unlikeable, hypocritical individuals engaged in strange rituals is not by placing them in the direst of situations, a situation in which any one of us would lose our grip on reality and our everyday 'humanity'.

Satire doesn't need exaggeration.

What I was left with instead were curious parallels to the constraints and indignities not so much within the 'bourgeoisie' but within cinema itself - characters finally achieving self-awareness of the rules of the medium in order to escape their captors, the film-maker and us, the audience (only for the film-maker to reassert his power at the end).

I may be clutching at straws but that's what came to mind while I was watching.

MovieMan0283 said...

That's a very interestng observation, Stephen. For some reason, metatextual readings didn't really occur to me while watching the film - I suppose so much emphasis is placed on Bunuel's socio-political satire, on the one hand, and his surrealistic randomness, on the other, that room for other sorts of readings is usually squeezed out.

Simon of the Desert will be coming up soon for me, and I look forward to watching & addressing it. It's one that has intrigued me for a while (though the same is true of this one).

What did you think of any other Bunuels you've seen?

MovieMan0283 said...

Also, Stephen, point taken about the satirical aspect. Sometimes Bunuel's anarchic surrealism and scathing satirical impulses don't quite gibe. The situation could be seen as allegorical, but because it exits on a "realistic" level as while as a metaphorical one, it doesn't quite work as a takedown of the bourgeoisie. And the little surrealistic tidbits (the bear, the chicken in the purse) included earlier seem to subvert the potential shock value of they're being trapped in a room later on.

Also, I rather wished that the characters wouldn't have realized their situation, and would have simply been trapped in the room without recognizing themselves as being such. (That's actually kind of what I thought the film would be, in fact, from descriptions I've read.) What if they had never mentioned or noticed the restraints and simply lulled around the room, slowly starving, sweating, and ganging up against each other, without ever acknowledging the possibility of leaving the room? It would have probably played less like a Twilight Zone concept with an invisible force field and more like a metaphorical satire of the upper class' self-imposed restraints and self-willed impotence. Or so it seems to me.

MovieMan0283 said...

By the way, I'm glad to see your blog is back in action as I enjoyed the first few entries this spring...

Stephen said...


I found the former to be light and quite fun if a bit too farcical at times - the Priest / Gardener nonsense for example. I enjoy watching Bulle Ogier, who is one of the most naturally engaging actresses I've seen.

The Phantom Liberty was probably more entertaining but as a compilation of sketches rather than a satisfying or coherent whole.

MovieMan0283 said...

The Phantom of Liberty is probably my least favorite Bunuel. It seemed so scattershot, with some effective bits, but also a lot of dead weight. What was the point of the sniper at the end? It didn't seem especially shocking or surreal - such things have happened enough in the real world - and he didn't add any twist to the behavior which might have surprised us. Again, I get the sense that I'm supposed to be more shocked, disoriented, effected on a visceral level, than I am.

Loved that emu though.

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