Surrealist Sundays: The Exterminating Angel

The Exterminating Angel (1962)



dir. Luis Bunuel

starring: Silvia Pinal, Jacqueline Andere, Enrique Rambal

In the final installment of Surrealist Sundays, I look at one of Bunuel’s well-known works: The Exterminating Angel. Here Bunuel refutes the premise that nothing interesting can happen on a dark and stormy night.  Following a dinner party, the guests are mysteriously unable to leave the room. What follows that, is a breakdown of manners and human decency that is darkly comic and ridiculous, especially when the reason for their entrapment is revealed.

The reliance on routines is criticized in this film. When the guest are forced to endure each others company longer than expected, that’s when things stop being polite. Thrown into a new situation, the guests cling to their rules and sense of propriety, which brings out an ugly selfishness. The guests become more withdrawn into their own private dramas. Given everyone’s close proximity, that focus becomes increasingly silly. The secret lovers are no longer a secret when everyone sees them hide in a corner for the room, even though no one comments on their tryst. A woman with feathers and chicken feet in her purse looks for mystical answers. One of the guests dies, and no one rushes to get them to the hospital. They are too busy debating who should be in charge. There are no heroes, and hardly any sympathetic characters. Silvia Pinal plays the most sympathetic character as the antisocial Leticia. However, she disappears early on and reappears at the end to solve the mystery.

If only the guests just had to worry about each other. For reasons not quite known, a herd of sheep and baby bear roam freely around the house. The sheep, the film’s spirit animal, provide food.  Yes, they are trapped in the room long enough to worry about starvation. The bear inspires terror and the men begin fighting one another.

Although the film could stay in the room, and we could participate in the claustrophobia and paranoia, Bunuel takes us out of the room and looks at the outside world.  A crowd has gathered outside the mansion. No one can get into the mansion.  Whatever affects the guests also affects the society at large. A child makes it farther than most, but he soon turns back. In that moment, you begin to check your own biases. Aren’t children innately innocent, especially in films?

The Exterminating Angel wakes us up to the unwritten rules of society that let us exist on autopilot.

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