El Ángel Exterminador
****/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Silvia Pinal, Jacqueline Andere, José Baviera, Augusto Benedico
screenplay by Luis Buñuel, based on the story "Los Náufragos de la Calle de la Providencia" by Luis Alcoriza and Luis Buñuel
directed by Luis Buñuel
by Bryant Frazer The first scene of The Exterminating Angel takes place at the gate outside a stately mansion where the house's butler, Julio (Claudio Brook), confronts Lucas (Ángel Merino), a servant trying to sneak off the grounds just as the staff is preparing a dinner party for twenty. The worker hesitates for a moment, then continues on his way, the butler calling angrily after him: "Never set foot in this house again." It's the beginning of a very long night for the steward, who is vexed as his waiters and kitchen staff, one by one or in pairs, desert their posts for the evening at the worst possible time. The servants know something's wrong, and though they're not sure what it is, none of them--save the unflappable Julio, who keeps the gears turning smoothly--are willing to stick around to find out. When Lucia (Lucy Gallardo), the frustrated lady of the house, barks her offense at this betrayal, Julio is there to reassure her. "Domestic help grows more impertinent by the day, madam," he declares.
Luis Buñuel didn't have much use for a member of the servant class who throws in his lot with his upper-crust employers, nor was he fond of the capitalist bourgeoisie, and The Exterminating Angel mocks them both. After the servants bound for the exits, whatever instincts sent them fleeing are below the notice of the dinner guests, who go about their business in formal dress, glad-handing one another in blissful obliviousness. The camera moves around the table, eavesdropping on ordinary bits of conversation; the film veers towards the surreal only when the kitchen is revealed to house a brown bear and some sheep, whom Lucia banishes to the garden outside when one diner reveals himself as a sourpuss. Yet the real trouble begins after the meal, when nobody leaves. It's not that nobody wants to go home, or that they are prevented from leaving. It's just that nobody does. Some of them are distracted on the way to the door; others simply seem to change their mind before they can make it outside. The guests grow impatient, and hungry again, as midnight becomes morning. As the sun rises, Julio shows up with a tray for breakfast, and he, too, never egresses, his allegiances finally catching him up in the same hell as his bosses. Again, there is no threat keeping them from leaving, nor is there an invisible barrier. It would be incorrect to say they can't leave. It's just that nobody does.
That's the brilliance of the scenario--a wisp of an idea stretched out to feature-length without feeling thin or overextended. On one level, it's terrifying: Are the guests being held in that room by a supernatural power? Is it a way station en route to the afterlife? Alas, Buñuel punctures that notion fairly early on, when he moves outside the house to depict the observers gathering outside, citizens and policemen alike, unable to bring themselves to enter the property and rescue the trapped socialites. Meanwhile, on the inside, the desperately thirsty guests are knocking holes in the wall to get at the pipes carrying fresh water, and are stacking bodies in the armoire. The absurdity is delicious--it's a siege movie without the siege. Buñuel eventually compares the guests to the sheep now running loose in the house, suggesting that the real force keeping everyone together in one room is conformity. Could it be that these miserable unfortunates are victims of only their own spinelessness?
Did I mention the sheep running loose in the house? Their presence grows more surreal as Buñuel embraces the absurd, at one point digressing far enough to stage a Bergman-esque vignette in which the disembodied hand of a dead man terrorizes a woman after dark, the only sound in the room the loud ticking of a clock. But Buñuel was at once a surrealist and an exceptional dramatist, and he teases out tiny stories showing how the stranded guests reorient their relationships as times get tough. A bride-to-be and her intended groom kindle an intimate relationship in one of the cabinets lining the drawing room. When a woman sits next to a man, he wipes his nose and compares her to a hyena. One man is sick and another secretly throws the medication he needs out of the room. Pharmaceutical relief is parcelled out from a little box of opioids. One of the women announces, brightly, "I think the lower classes are less sensitive to pain." And, perhaps inevitably, the guests begin to plot against their host, sure that their plight is somehow his fault despite his avowed disbelief that they would seek to turn his hospitality against him.
This is all photographed sumptuously though unpretentiously by the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who studied with Gregg Toland in Hollywood before returning to Mexico, where he worked on seven Buñuel films released between 1950 and 1965. Here, he uses light and shadow to create a sense of depth as well as to direct the eye to different sections of the frame. It's extraordinary. The darker scenes that take place overnight have an exceptional richness, with their bright details daubed across deep blacks in painterly fashion. The challenge of lighting Buñuel's many set-ups, all of them stocked with multiple actors moving in and out of frame, must have been daunting, and yet every image is executed with exceptional attention to detail. Despite Buñuel's disappointment at what he considered distractingly low production values on the Mexican set (he later lamented the availability of only a single fine table-napkin for set dressing), there is hardly a plain shot in the film. I especially love the spooky angles taken from across the darkened dining room, the camera gazing, as if through a proscenium arch, into the drawing room, which is all lit up like a movie screen, its characters peering back sadly at the world outside.
Of course, the picture's classical beauty throws Buñuel's subversions into relief. Take as an example his use of repetition. Famously, the scene where the dinner guests first arrive in the front vestibule before heading upstairs plays out twice. The group enters through the front door, then schmoozes in the background as Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) calls out for the absent Lucas, before sending the whole party upstairs. We watch the scene through the eyes of two kitchen workers waiting in a side room to sneak out the front door, peeking out to see if the coast is clear. Once the last of the revellers has gone upstairs, they set out across the balcony, only to stop partway and scramble back the way they came. And then we watch, again, as the party of twenty steps inside, Edmundo looks for Lucas, and everyone goes upstairs. The scene is the same, yet different--it's a different take of the same action, shot from a slightly different angle. A frantic Figueroa is said to have alerted the director to the repetition when he saw the final cut, attributing it to an editorial oversight. Buñuel insisted the error was nothing of the sort, and later pointed out that he regularly employed repetition in the film. It's still a distressing tactic--your narrative can bend the rules of reality all you want and expect people to happily come along for the ride, but when you mess with the fundamental grammar of cinema, you start to make people itch. Still, the structure of The Exterminating Angel is cyclical (day turning to night and back into day again), evoking the concept of eternal recurrence and putting the scenario into a downward spiral; when the camera first catches sight of the room in disarray, filled with smoke, lit by fire and no doubt suffused by the smell of burning sheep-flesh, it's a genuinely shocking moment. Then there's the movie's coda, which may not be as blasphemous as the ending of L'âge d'or, but is a similarly violent broadside against the Catholic Church.
Indeed, The Exterminating Angel is widely understood as a salvo against the kind of stubborn, unreflective society--religious, capitalist, aristocratic--that allowed fascists to seize power in Buñuel's Spanish homeland, though it applies equally well to any number of stupid situations that could be remedied if only a certain group of powerful people could bring themselves to realize the door is right over there. The picture was banned in the U.S.S.R.--they got the joke but didn't find it funny. For my part, I couldn't help but read it as a powerful, prescient, and deliciously sardonic satire of the 2017 U.S. Congress, unwilling if not unable to take their leave of the unsavoury administration they put in power. Anyway, The Exterminating Angel premiered in Salzburg last year as a new opera by Thomas Adès; it is the source for one act of a forthcoming musical from Stephen Sondheim. It resonates and endures. As one of Buñuel's own characters puts it, "It seems unreal...or perhaps too normal." And the angel of the title must be inertia or, more precisely, inaction in the face of monstrosity--a condition that will be the ruin of us all.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The picture quality of Criterion's newly-released Blu-ray (1.33:1, 1080p/AVCHD) upgrade of The Exterminating Angel's 2009 DVD is mostly excellent. Although it has the slightly softened quality of a dupe negative source (as specified in Criterion's liner notes), the overall tone is lush and silvery, with ample dynamic range and a silky-smooth grain layer. Some shots are notably softer than others--particularly those that exhibit some light vertical scratching--and contrast levels appear to vary quite a bit, leading me to wonder if multiple sources were used or if some of the difference can be ascribed to filtration techniques, etc. A few shots exhibit more damage, and I noticed at least one missing frame, around the 3:07 mark. Also, I hate to be one of those aspect-ratio boors, but I honestly wonder if 1.33:1 is the intended AR for this film, which was made well into the widescreen era. Many shots look deliberately framed for 1.85:1 (or perhaps the European 1.66:1), and matting would help eliminate the more-than-ample headroom. Moreover, it would (mostly) eliminate the boom mic that juts impetuously into frame from under a table during one early scene set in the kitchen. (I'd like to think Gabriel Figueroa would have noticed a thing like that.)
The sound, too, varies. While Criterion has done its usual job of preserving clarity on an uncompressed PCM track sourced (again per liner notes) from "35mm optical soundtrack prints," the condition of those prints seems to vary. Some scenes feature line deliveries that are barely audible, with a brittle timbre over a hissing sound-bed; others boast better-rounded dialogue that springs out with excellent detail and fullness from something much closer to silence. Nothing here is bad enough to be a distraction--you'll only notice it if you're skipping around in the film. The audio is monaural 1.0, encoded to the centre channel.
Though supplementary material is slim for Criterion, the included 2008 documentary, The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel, is a doozy. Over the course of 97 minutes, Buñuel's son Juan Luis Buñuel offers a guided tour of his father's life and career, visiting the cities and locations--Zaragoza, Madrid, Paris, Mexico City--where the filmmaker lived and worked. He's joined for much of the journey by his father's co-writer and confidante Jean Claude Carrière, and his brother Raoul meets him in Los Angeles for a visit to the tiny house where the Buñuels lived when they were invited to Hollywood by MGM. ("They made the same shit then that they make now," notes Juan Luis.) That layover is followed by a trip to the Mexican streets where Los Olvidados and The Exterminating Angel itself were filmed--Gabriel Figueroa's son shows up for a few minutes, as does Silvia Pinal herself--and then it's back to Europe. The great joy of this piece is that it documents a rambling but surprisingly disciplined bull session between the younger Buñuel and whoever else happens to be on screen, complete with an entertaining complement of candid insights and revealing anecdotes; the Charlie Chaplin story he tells is a classic. There's a particularly nice moment with Angela Molina, one of the stars of That Obscure Object of Desire, wherein she remembers how gratifying it could be to perform for Don Luis. "When he knew that we'd grasped what he was telling us, the technical aspects and all about acting out a moment, creating that moment, he'd lose himself like a child in our performance." My only complaint is that The Last Script was completed just a year or so before HD became de rigueur for stuff like this; Criterion has upsampled the SD program to 1920x1080, but I'd love to see it in authentic HiDef.
Also on board is a 15-minute solo interview from 2006 with Carrière, similarly upsampled from the original SD, in which he considers Buñuel's status as an authentic Mexican filmmaker. "Mexico paints everybody, except for Buñuel," Carrière says, arguing that traditional Mexican cinema had been aspirational, depicting a country of uncomplicated rural life where the city represented a dangerous loss of innocence. That was a milieu into which Buñuel lobbed hand grenades during the '50s and '60s. "He did not give us the dream," Carrière notes. "He gave us the nightmare." On the specific subject of The Exterminating Angel, Carrière believes Buñuel almost certainly had someplace like London or Sweden in mind, since what we see on screen is modelled on the European bourgeoisie, not the Mexican.
Pinal resurfaces in a 10-minute 2006 interview that begins with her repeating a friend's assertion that The Exterminating Angel represents Buñuel's invention of reality television: "What is The Exterminating Angel if not a reality show about people who can't leave that room?" She also remembers quizzing the director on his decision to show the dinner-party entrance twice, the specific nature of the sickness that afflicts the guests, and more--to little satisfaction. When Buñuel heard that audiences were interpreting the presence of the bear as a reference to communism, she remembers, "he nearly died laughing." But, she notes, he was nothing if not serious about the results. "Nobody could deviate from what he asked for," she says. "He alone knew what he was doing." The last item on the disc is an HD transfer of a four-minute trailer that's worn worse than The Exterminating Angel itself but is more than adequate for HD viewing.
Finally, Criterion slips in a 36-page black-and-white booklet with a couple of good reads held over from the DVD release. Spanish cinema expert Marsha Kinder's "Exterminating Civilization" is a critical essay on Buñuel's life and career that puts The Exterminating Angel in context and argues that it indicts its audience, too, as part of a "network of bourgeois corruption." Then there's "Luis Buñuel on The Exterminating Angel," an excerpt from the book-length collection of interviews with the director Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel. The Exterminating Angel gets only a scant few paragraphs of attention in his famous autobiography, My Last Sigh; this fairly detailed exchange is more satisfying and probably the most candid Buñuel has ever been about the movie's meaning and his intentions in making it.