In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I haven’t always been quick to warm to Luis Buñuel. Some of his films have struck me as cold, and, sometimes, excessively cruel, that I have found it difficult to fully embrace them. Even The Exterminating Angel, a renowned classic and one of Buñuel’s finest films, left me a bit ambivalent the first time I saw it: Its rhythms are so unique they’re often disconcerting and unsettling. This is, of course, the desired effect, but Buñuel so slyly and subtly upsets natural social order and narrative momentum in the film that it is often difficult to get a handle on. But once we're able to reach his wavelength, Buñuel's biting sense of humor and pointed social commentary cement his place in cinema’s pantheon.
The Exterminating Angel takes the pretense of a narrative film -- it's set at a bourgeois dinner party where, after most of the help sneaks out for the night, the guests find themselves inexplicably unable to leave the room -- only to leave it in stasis, or, rather, trapped in a circular, surrealistic logic, for a majority of the running time. As the absurdity and tension builds to soaring heights, Buñuel viciously and satirically deconstructs the social mores, manners, and other refined, stabilizing niceties and gestures of the upper class as they are left helplessly to fend for themselves. There is clearly more than a hint of class warfare in the film, and Buñuel leaves no doubt as to where his loyalties lie, yet he is not content with merely showing the depth of the party guests' dependence on the workers.
As the night breaks into day, the veneer of politeness and cultured behavior upon which these characters pride themselves -- and which they regard as proof of their own supposed innate superiority -- is slowly peeled away. Where Godard’s Week-end shows the savagery bubbling beneath mass consumer culture, The Exterminating Angel reveals the callous, brutal, and animalistic tendencies that lay hidden beneath the façade of bourgeois posturing.
Buñuel is first and foremost a surrealist, but he is also a great comic director whose ferocious lampooning of the dominant social institutions is undiluted by broad performances or intrusive soundtracks. His films operate on a wholly internal logic yet are never fully divorced from reality. In The Exterminating Angel, the events and dialogue become increasingly bizarre, but only in a few brief moments do they derail into the territory of dreams and the subconscious. This grounding of the absurd, illogical premise in an instantly recognizable social milieu allows his shots against social complacency, mindless conformity to social orders and the repression of natural human impulses to land damning, direct blows upon a philosophy and way of life that Buñuel finds offensively hypocritical and repressive. The gradual transformation of outwardly dignified aristocrats into cruel, selfish beasts hell-bent on nothing but petty revenge, animalistic sex, and their own survival is both absurd and surprisingly acute.
The finale, which leaves the newly “cured” social elites in a Catholic church, once again trapped and enslaved by an illogical and oppressive institution, is brilliant not only in its transposition of bourgeois protocol onto religious ritualism, but in its use of this abrupt transition as an eternal condemnation of his characters and a way of life. Buñuel never betrays a shred of compassion, and he never hesitates to express his contempt for these people. But his terrifying and often hilarious vision remains one of the most uncompromising in all of cinema.