The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Directed by Luis Bunuel

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I’m not sure when I first noticed that something was up in The Exterminating Angel, but it’s clear something is afoot long before the dinner party guests realize they are unable to leave the confines of the drawing room where they have gathered to bring the night to a close.  For the wealthy people who have attended the fancy little feast, what begins as a lavish, celebratory affair soon turns deadly.

They will at first find reasons to avoid leaving the drawing room until it’s late enough in the night that they figure they should just go to sleep right then and there.  In the morning they awaken, confused by why no one left but not yet questioning it.  They will eat breakfast on the couches, after which one wonders why they didn’t head to the dining table to eat.  Soon enough they realize that try as they might, there is some invisible force blocking them from leaving the room.

By the end the characters won’t have any grasp on time and, in some instances, on their physical space.  Their evening turns into weeks, maybe more, of madness at the end of which they stop just short of cannibalizing each other.  They are ostensibly the pinnacle of civilized society, all dressed to the nines for a neat night with other neat people, but by the end they are at each other’s throats.  In one instance they wonder why no one has come looking for them.  Are they not missed out in the world?

We will see that people have indeed gathered outside the large mansion in which the dinner party took place.  They are very much concerned that no one has come out of the building, certain that between the thick silence and mass disappearance something horrible must’ve happened.  And yet they too find reason not to enter the building.  Soon enough they will catch up to what the audience knows and realize that whatever is keeping the dinner guests inside the building is the same thing keeping them outside.

The film ends up as a Lord of the Flies situation.  They crack open a water pipe in the wall to nourish their thirst, chop up book cases to generate fire wood and, in the best moment of all, a few sheep and a small bear, which the dinner party’s hostess had planned to incorporate in some sort of after-dinner celebration, break free inside the house, leading to the inevitable slaughter of the sheep so that they may be consumed.

This is a wonderfully weird little film.  What I’ve described so far covers just about the entire story but leaves out much more.  Before the supernatural intervenes on the night of these dinner guests, there have already been established a number of weird occurrences and images.  Beyond the sheep and the bear, one guest has two severed chicken feet in her purse, another is a doctor who seems sure that one of the female guests will be bald within a week (we’re told that he’s never wrong), and then you have the way in which the film is edited, so that certain moments simply occur twice.

At the dinner table one man gives a kind toast to which the others hold up their glasses.  A few moments go by and then he inexplicably gets up to offer the same toast, only this time no one responds and he sits back down, dejected.  Other moments play out repeatedly, as if they’ve already happened before and are now taking place in some sort of time loop.  Though the characters’ eventual confinement to the drawing room seems to take place with a linear sense of time, they might as well be stuck in a loop, no time passing in the outside world as long as they can’t perceive it.  To them everything has come to a standstill and because we get the sense that they exist in their own insulated littler world already, this might as well mean that the world as a whole has hit the pause button.

The reasons they eventually break this spell feel arbitrary.  This isn’t a mystery/thriller in which the clues are to be solved.  Instead it’s about watching the slow degradation of this tiny community, seeing the ways their civilized manners give way to more basic, primordial impulses.  When it comes down to it, we just want to survive, good manners be damned.

The beauty of this film is that from the pristine image and proper way of speaking, this feels like an austere old Hollywood film from the 40s, one in which you can be damn sure certain lines won’t be crossed and things will follow a preordained template.  That is the case until their understanding of the world goes belly up, almost as if these are movie characters who have become self-aware of the medium itself and are now going insane knowing that there is nothing beyond the limits of the flimsy studio sets which contain them.

Up Next: Ed Wood (1994), High Life (2018), Bound for Glory (1976)

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