Criterion // 1962 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 10th, 2009
"Buñuel's wicked takedown of the rituals and dependencies of the frivolous upper classes."
Luis Buñuel is an acknowledged master of the cinema, and few other directors have more releases by the distinguished Criterion label, but he always seems to stand apart from his contemporaries, at least to me. Buñuel seems cut from a similarly powerful cinematic cloth as directors such as Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni, who also rose to prominence in the late '50s/early '60s art-house scene, but still he stands alone. I like to think of Buñuel as the anarchic spirit of the art-house crowd. He wasn't the only one to explore the divide between the classes, the self-reflexive power of cinema, or the relationship between dreams, fantasy, and reality, but he did it with a pervasive glee, like a dog rolling in the mud (unlike some other filmmakers, who never dare to get themselves dirty as they chronicle life's darker sides). It's no wonder then that he became associated with one of the more anarchic movements in cinema, the French New Wave. Before Buñuel's fruitful time in France, he made over a dozen films in Mexico before being thrust into the international spotlight with Viridiana. After that success, he went on to make two more Mexican films before departing to France. One of them, The Exterminating Angel continues Buñuel's obsession with upper class rituals and is a valuable addition to any collection of international film.
Like so many of Buñuel's films, the story of The Exterminating Angel is simple. After a show, a group of upper-class friends meet at a mansion for dinner. After the meal they find themselves unable to leave for reasons unknown. As they realize their predicament, the guests respond in a variety of ways, showing the audience the depths of human feelings.
If I can say one thing for sure about Buñuel it's that he likes his dinner tables. In many ways, Exterminating Angel is the bookend for Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In Discreet Charm, we follow a group of upper-class friends who find themselves unable to sit down to a meal together, while Exterminating Angel is the opposite (most would say it's the other way around, but I saw Discreet Charm first, so forgive me.). Despite their enjoyment of the party, none of Angel's guests can leave, try as they might. This places the characters in a pressure cooker, and we get to see the stuff they are made of.
Make no mistake, however, The Exterminating Angel is pure allegory. The events in the mansion take place on Providence Street, a lamb makes an appearance, and no realistic explanation is given for the guests' inability to leave. This sets up a series of targets for Buñ to knock down. The dinner party itself (especially those, like the one in this film, which are designed more to show off the opulence of the host rather than feed the guests) is shown up as a cause for the paralysis of the upper class. As the situation becomes desperate (no food or water is present in the room, and closets must serve as lavatories), the true colors of the guests are revealed. Most become barbaric, dropping the formality of their coats and ties immediately, while others attempt to keep a stiff upper lip. Bunñuel shows that beneath the rigid, formal exterior of the upper class worldview, base animalism lurks quietly.
If that were the entirety of Bunñuel's project, Exterminating Angel wouldn't be successful at all. Certainly any number of other artists has demonstrated the barbaric heart of the human condition. Luckily, Bunñuel has that anarchic spirit to keep his film fresh. Instead of merely pointing the finger at the upper crust and letting us all have a laugh at their silly conventions, the director makes us critically examine what's happening to the characters. Once you've wondered why the guests are stuck in the room, it's not a huge leap to wonder why you continue to watch these pathetic individuals during their plight. Thus the tables are turned on the audience and we realize that we are implicitly engaged in many of the activities which give the upper class their apparent power. However, even once we've realized our guilt in this process Buñuel doesn't rub our nose in it. Instead, we can laugh at ourselves as much as we laugh at the poor guests, and the film hopefully increases our sympathy with them as well.
From what I've said so far, it might be easy to think that Buñuel has abandoned his typical concerns with religion, but that's not the case. Although I won't give much away, suffice it to say that the ending leaves no doubt that religion is just as captivating as the rituals of the dinner table for our merry band of aristocrats.
Another day, another stellar release from Criterion. The Exterminating Angel is shown in its original 1.33:1 ratio, and the print, though far from pristine, is fantastic for a film of this era and budget. The audio doesn't fare quite as well, with a little bit of distortion, but nothing too distracting. As for the extras, disc one only houses the film's trailer. Buñuel has yet to receive the commentary treatment, and that's a shame because this film would have been a perfect jumping off point for a discussion of his history, themes, etc. It's a minor quibble though, as disc two houses a number of excellent features. The big draw is likely to be "The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel." This documentary, from 2008, is longer than the feature film and takes Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière and the director's son Juan Luis to some of his locations to reminisce about the director and his ideas. It's a quiet, contemplative documentary that's a fitting tribute to a fine director. We are also treated to a pair of interviews. One is with Silvia Pinal, star of three Buñuel films. In 10 minutes she discusses her work with the famous director. The other interview features Arturo Ripstein, a filmmaker from Mexico who spent time on the set of Exterminating Angel.
This is international art cinema at its finest. That, however, might leave some viewers cold. The plot doesn't move very briskly, the dialogue is not particularly scintillating, and the resolution provides more questions than answers. So, for those looking for typical popcorn entertainment, The Exterminating Angel is not the place to find it.
Exterminating Angel is just about a perfect film that manages to deftly send up the silly rituals of the upper class while also questioning the viewer's complicity in cinema. Criterion has done another masterful job bringing an important piece of cinema to DVD viewers with an excellent audiovisual presentation and a host of interesting supplements.
Hopefully I won't get stuck in a DVD review, because I find Exterminating Angel not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated