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The Exterminating Angel (DVD, 2009, 2-Disc Set, Criterion Collection) Reviews
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The Exterminating Angel (DVD, 2009, 2-Disc Set, Criterion Collection)

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Satire Without Bite; Nonsense Without Charm

May 14, 2005 (Updated Nov 27, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Decent ensemble acting; some nifty surreal images

Cons:Toothless satire; feeble humor; one old idea, repeated for the umpteenth time

The Bottom Line: Bu˝uel at his worst, amusing himself by flailing aimlessly at the haute bourgeoisie and Catholic Church


I've put off watching this film, directed by the great Luis Buñuel, for a long time, mainly because I didn't expect that it would be one I would like. It is often likened to Buñuel's The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is easily my least favorite of the nine films by this director that I had seen prior to this one. Sometimes, when I anticipate not liking a film, I am pleasantly surprised. This time I was not.

Among the Buñuel films I've reviewed, I given three five-star ratings (L’Age D’Or, Los Olvidados, and Viridiana), three four-star ratings (Belle de Jour, Diary of a Chambermaid, and El), one three-stars (Tristana), and just two stars for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I've also seen That Obscure Object of Desire, though I haven't gotten around to reviewing it yet, and would likely give it four-stars. I mention this because, according to one reviewer here at Epinions, not liking The Exterminating Angel is credible evidence that the viewer or reviewer is weak-minded, doesn't like to use their wits, or lacks appreciation for surrealism. Except for one early short, L’Age D’Or is the most thoroughly surreal of Buñuel's films and among my favorites. I'd like to think that I've demonstrated, through the reviews that I've written, some willingness to use my wits. I don't claim that any of these "credentials" make my opinion in relation to The Exterminating Angel any better than anyone else's, but my misgivings about the film have nothing to do with either laziness, witlessness, or inability to enjoy surrealism or satire.

Historical Background: In his youth, Bu˝uel hobnobbed with an ideologically compact group of surrealists and stirred up controversy with the likes of Un Chien andalou (1928) and L’Age D’Or (1930). Then, he spent a couple of frustrating decades in virtual exile from the Franco regime. During those years in America, his career got badly side-tracked. He was reduced to working on military documentaries and Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films. When he moved to Mexico in the 1950’s, his career was reinvigorated, resulting in such masterpieces as Los Olvidados (1950) and El (1952). Bu˝uel then moved to France, in 1955, where he produced three fine films over five years: Death in the Garden (1955), Nazarin (1958), and The Young One (1960). His rising international stature earned Bu˝uel an invitation from the Franco government to return to Spain. There, he made Viridiana (1961), which was promptly banned in Spain, for its anti-Catholic undercurrents, despite winning the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. Bu˝uel then returned to Mexico, where he made The Exterminating Angel (1962). Later, he returned to France for the final phase of his career, directing another series of great films.

The Story: On the surface the story, though bizarre, is rather straight-forward. A wealthy man, Edmundo Nobilé (Enrique Rambal), and his wife, Lucía de Nobilé (Lucy Gallardo), are throwing a dinner party for a group of up-scale society friends that include a Colonel, a doctor, an opera composer, an architect, and many others. Just before the guests arrive, the servants, including the cook, waiters, maids, and so forth, all experience an irresistible urge to leave the premises. Among the working class, only the majordomo, Julio (Claudio Brook), remains behind. Discerning viewers will notice that the guests actually arrive twice (one of Bu˝uel's time loops or repetitions). Conversation ensues over dinner, including both some witty pleasantries and some backbiting gossip about those further down the table. A waiter trips and spills a tray of appetizers.

After dinner, the party moves into the adjacent salon, for more conversation. Blanca plays a Paradisi sonata on the piano. The evening wears on, but nobody wants to leave. The host and hostess are beginning to feel that their guests are being rude, staying so late. Nobilé says to his wife as they observe a guest removing his suit jacket, "Let us remove our coats as well, to attenuate the incorrectness." One woman opens her purse and discovers chicken feathers and rooster claws. It gets to be 4 A.M., and the guests all crash on the couches and chairs – even on the floor. Morning rolls around and still no one is able to leave. For some inexplicable reason, no one can muster the willpower to leave the salon. They gradually become conscious of the ridiculousness of their situation, but, still, none can exit.

Hours turn into days and the initially genteel group passes through stages of boredom and annoyance with one another, to outright hostility. One of the older men dies and his body is stuffed in a closet. One youngish pair become romantically involved, though each is scheduled to be married a few days hence to other parties. They commit dual suicide. Food soon runs out and water is scarce as well. One of the men breaks through the plaster wall to a water pipe and cracks it enough to provide a water source. Later, some lambs wander into the room, possibly chased in by a bear, and are slaughtered for food. There's no bathroom attached to the salon, so the guests have to go into closets and pee in vases. There's some surreal events, such as a disembodied hand scurrying across the floor and some dream fragments as the guests are awakening one morning. As time goes on, several of the guests begin to imagine that their host is to blame for their difficulty and want to kill him. Some inept violence breaks out, but no one is seriously hurt. There's a doctor among the group who provides the lone voice of reason and constantly urges everyone to remain calm.

Outside the house, the disappearance of all these high-placed citizens has been duly noted. Police and soldiers have gathered, but none are able to enter the building, even under orders. It's not that they are physically restricted. They're suffering the same willpower deficit in reverse that is operating on the people stranded inside. The outsiders becomes concerned that the problem, whatever it might be, could be contagious, so the house is quarantined.

After several days trapped in the salon, one of the women notices that everyone in the room happens to be in the exact same places as they were the first night, as they listened to Blanca playing the piano. She asks Blanca to repeat the end of the piece and for everyone to repeat what they said and did immediately thereafter. Blanca had complained of being too tired to play any longer. This time, the guests agree with her and declare that they're all getting tired and should head on home. Having apparently looped back in time and corrected some deficit in the cosmic karma, all are now able to leave the salon with no difficulty.

The group attends mass to celebrate their liberation, but at the end of it, they and the priests and other worshipers suddenly discover that none of them have the willpower to leave the church.

Themes: An introductory screen announces that "the best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation." Since this assessment is ascribed to Bu˝uel himself, who are we to argue. The one seemingly indisputable thematic element is a mocking of the lifestyle of the haute bourgeoisie. Without their servants to tend to their needs, they quickly fall to pieces. Behind all the pretense of civility is a lot of repressed hostility. Then, near the film's end, there's Bu˝uel's obligatory swipe at the intransigence of the Catholic Church. Beyond those obvious matters of substance, the particulars are largely nonsensical, designed mainly to amuse Bu˝uel himself and anyone attuned to his goofy style.

I enjoy satire as much as the next person and certainly have no objection to singling out the wealthy as a target for such efforts. My first problem with the film is that it's essentially a one-gag concept, stretched out for 95 minutes. My second problem is that none of it seemed remotely funny to me and precious little of it even rose to the level of amusement. I feel that I have some taste for absurdity. I'm a big fan of Ionesco, for example. Here, however, the nonsense is neither charming nor ingenious enough to be funny. It is, however, just foolish enough not to stand up as any kind of meaningful attack on the targeted groups. It's satire without teeth.

The aristocracy is often impotent and stubbornly inept but unless you believed that already, before the film began, there's no particular reason why you'd be more convinced of it after watching the film. It's all just Bu˝uel venting his contempt rather ineffectively. He even sinks to self-indulgent in-jokes. One of the ladies makes reference to seeing eagles while she was urinating in the closet for no better reason than that Bu˝uel had used an outhouse, as a boy, that had a view of a cliff where some eagles nested. All in all, there's far too little to sustain this film, whether humor, substance, or meaningful satire. Bu˝uel often complained in interviews about how boring he found society parties. The Exterminating Angel is like the man's home movie that he's going to make you watch to prove to you how boring the event was that he had to film.

Production Values: The script of the film was based on an unpublished play by José Bengamin, called Los Náufragos. It's just one idea and Bu˝uel never even runs with it or developes it even enough for a brief Saturday Night Live skit. There's also no development of any of the characters. It's very difficult even to keep the numerous characters straight, but there's no particular reason to do so.

The one bit of quality in the film is the interesting use of surreal elements, even if they serve no comprehensible narrative or thematic purpose. The performances of the ensemble cast seem very competent, though it's hard to know, since none of them reveal much about their interior motivations or personalities or develop over the course of the film. They're mainly just interchangeable cogs in the machinery of the aristocracy. Sylvia Pinal, who played Leticia, the opera composer, previously appeared in Viridiana.

Bottom-Line: For me, this film was pretty much a boring waste of time, except for a few nice bits of surrealism thrown in here and there. I can't recommend it, despite the lofty reputation of its master director. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. It's basically one idea stretched out over 95 minutes with an assortment of boring silly business.


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