DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

The Exterminating Angel has much in common with the surrealist Un Chien Andalou that he made in 1929 with Dali.

Published on February 2, 2009

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Director: Luis Bunuel
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 459 (2 discs) [Release date: Feb. 10, 09]
Video: 1.33:1 B&W
Audio: Spanish Dolby mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Theatrical trailer, “The Last Script: Remembering Luis Bunuel” – new documentary with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and director Juan Luis Bunuel, New interviews with actress Silvia Pinal and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein, Illustrated booklet with new essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder and a 1970s interview with Bunuel
Length: 93 minutes
Rating: *****

This is one of the Spanish filmmaker’s masterpieces, shot in Mexico just a year after his daring Viridiana (which was banned in Spain). A group of high society people are invited by the couple living in an impressive mansion to come to a late dinner party following their having attended the opera together.  But when it gets into the wee hours of the night none of the guests seem able to leave the large room where they have been.  The men remove their jackets and people sleep on the floor or sofas.  The host couple are shocked at their lack of etiquette, but the next day it is definitely established that no one is able to move thru the large doorway into the rest of the house to leave, although there is no visible barrier there.

The situation goes from bad to worse as some of the guests sicken, one dies and a couple commit suicide. There are fights, the man who owns the house is accused of causing the situation, and slowly the veneer of civilization wears away as the days drag on. No one on the outside is able to enter the house either, so that is no solution. The problem of needing water is solved by the butler – the only one of the servants who hadn’t left just before the party – breaking into a water pipe in the wall.  Then three sheep who were earlier brought into the house as a joke are chased into the room by a small bear and that takes care of the guests’ hunger. In the end the people release themselves from the captive room by assuming the same positions in the room they were in when the inexplicable problem started. (Never mind that three people have died.)  But the final scene, with the guests attending mass at a Catholic church, shows that the threatening situation is far from over.

Bunuel has filled his tale with eerie details – such as a disembodied hand moving across the floor – humor, absurd happenings, heavy satire of the upper classes and religion.  In the interviews he speaks about creating some of the surrealism so prominent in the film.  The Exterminating Angel has much in common with Un Chien Andalou that he made in 1929 with Dali.  As with that film, critics and scholars wrote volumes analyzing the symbolic meanings in the films, but Bunuel explains that he never attached a special meaning – he just put things together in wild and absurd ways that might look interesting.  (One scene was just a way to use up an extra hour before they were scheduled to quit.  They had a sheep tied up and the actors playing the host couple sitting near it. The man had a headband on and there was a dagger on the table. Bunuel had him pick up the dagger and told the actress to take the headband off him and blindfold the sheep. Oh boy, did that stimulate a lot of print about Christian symbolism!)

Bunuel obviously targets the Catholic church in his satire, but it is in a quite different way from Fellini’s approach in hs films. Bunuel denied there is much similarity between Exterminating Angel and Satre’s play No Exit, but I think there is a good deal. Of course Satre’s characters were confined to hell, but Bunuel’s could seemingly leave if they wanted to. This from the interview with Bunuel in the booklet: “Perhaps I’m an anarchist-nihilist…but also a pacifist. .. At present the only organization I would consider joining is the SPCA.”  (Bunuel originally moved to Mexico after he was fired from a job at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art during the Red Scare – for being a communist.)

The documentary with screenwriter Carriere and Bunuel’s son Juan Luis is fascinating as they visit the various cities where Bunuel was active. The world of the surrealists and the trio of the young Bunuel, Dali and Lorca is described. I didn’t know that the university they attended was unique in having no chapel on campus – not even Catholic. Quite an accomplishment in Spain of the period. The horrors of the Spanish Civil War of course had a strong effect on the director.  In fact, most of his life he was an exile of one sort or another.

The image and sound quality of the reissue is first rate, as always with Criterion.  Bunuel states that he wished he had been able to do the production in Spain or France and it would have been better, but I think The Exterminating Angel is effective and powerful just as it was made. The extras are most welcome, though my favorite is still Bunuel’s home video on one of the previous Criterion collections on how to mix the perfect martini.

 – John Sunier

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