-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
The Exterminating Angel|
cast: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Lucy Gallardo, and Augusto Benedico
director: Luis Bunuel
95 minutes (12) 1962
Arrow DVD Region 0 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
After Bunuel's victory with El Nazarin at the 1958 Cannes film festival, Franco
was so impressed with the director that he invited him to make a film in Spain to show
off Spanish culture and values. The resulting film Viridiana turned out to be a
scathing critique of society, religion and the family prompting Bunuel to flee Spain for
Mexico. The Exterminating Angel sees Bunuel return to similar themes in creating
a film that is one part surrealist fable, one part social satire and one part black comedy.
Edmundo and Lucia Nobile are hugely rich. They live in a vast mansion with impressive
grounds and are waited upon by a dozen servants while they sit in lavishly decorated
luxury. This changes though when they decide to hold a dinner party for their equally
wealthy and sophisticated friends. The evening starts poorly as servants begin to flee
the house, leaving the guests to be waited on by a lone remaining member of staff, the
Nobiles' butler. As the evening wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that the guests
have overstayed their welcome and yet the Nobiles daren't say anything for fear of offending
anyone. When people start stripping off and going to sleep in the drawing room, the Nobiles
are horrified and yet they do the same in order to 'attenuate' the social faux pas. Soon
the entire group is sleeping on the floor but they only realise that something is wrong
when the morning comes around and they still find themselves making excuses not to leave.
Indeed, the guests and their hosts are incapable of leaving the drawing room; they are
trapped as if by some irresistible force. As the days wear on, the social niceties and
sophistication that brought the friends together start to dissolve as people turn to
drugs and religion and plotting while the doctor continually tries to keep people 'calm'
and 'reasonable'. Meanwhile, on the outside of the mansion, the police and army seem aware
of the situation but just as the guests inside the house are unable to leave, the police
outside are unable to enter. It is only when one of the guests thinks to retrace the group's
steps on the night of the party and demonstrate how they could very well have left had they
wanted to that the group breaks free. The film ends with the group so grateful for their
freedom that they choose to attend a mass, only to find themselves this time unable to
leave the church.
The first thing that will strike you about this film is how old it looks. Despite being
made in 1962, the black and white film and the costumes suggest a film that could very
well have been made in the 1930s. This impression is re-enforced by the poor sound quality
of the DVD and the slightly grainy texture of the picture. However, the effect is not
unpleasant as it gives the film a feeling of timelessness and universality. Indeed, the
film is more about the situation and the characters than visual spectacle so any re-mastering
would have been more of a luxury than a necessity and the lack of extras here confirms this
as a bare bones release.
The decision to forego a commentary track or some kind of interview, is unfortunate as
The Exterminating Angel is a densely symbolic film that requires a good deal of
thought and analysis if one is to get the most out of it.
Reminiscent of Renoir's La Regle Du Jeu, The Exterminating Angel is a biting
critique of bourgeois society and the absurd and arbitrary limits people impose upon their
own freedom. Throughout the film, the guests behave like sheep in that one person's failed
attempt at leaving serves only to reinforce everyone's belief that they are trapped. Throughout
the film no concerted effort is ever made to escape and when one guest suggests pushing another
one out the door, the second guest responds by threatening to kill him. Nowhere is this
sheep-like behaviour more evident than at the arrival of a flock of sheep that coincides
not only with the group turning against itself but with Nobile's offer to sacrifice himself
for the good of the group suggesting that these people are not only sheep but cannibalistic
sheep who would eat their own just to survive, making one of them a sacrificial lamb. Indeed,
compare the actions of the sheep with that of the bear. The sheep march towards their doom
in the drawing room but the bear is free, he runs about, playing and symbolically climbing
the house's roman columns, so symbolic of civilisation itself. But Bunuel doesn't stop there
as he criticises the working classes who, through deference, refuse to enter the mansion,
and religion that not only fails to come to the aid of the group but also serves only to
trap them a second time.
However, while brilliantly made and wonderfully satirical, The Exterminating Angel
is not a flawless film. Indeed, while the intension of the film is clearly to be funny,
there are few moments that will raise more than a smile. This is, in part, due to Bunuel's
intentional repetitiveness (mocking the fact that people get re-introduced to each other
at dinner parties) that serves to prevent things from ever completely spiralling out of
control and the incredibly earnestness of the performers, something made worse by the fact
that Bunuel only really develop some of the characters, leaving others to cling to catchphrases
("He's over-sensitive!") and nicknames ('The Valkyrie' or 'Colonel').
Despite a stingily packaged DVD and a few flaws that prevent the film from being truly
fantastic, The Exterminating Angel is still a wonderfully satirical and wicked
film that is well worth checking out.