Almost everyone has attended a dinner party at some point in their lives that was mandatory as well as a memorably bad experience. Maybe it was a communal meal with the boss and co-workers or a formal affair with an annoying in-law or relative. Just be glad you were able to leave the event when it became convenient. The assembled guests in Luis Bunuel’s surreal satire, The Exterminating Angel (1962), don’t have that option but the reasons for their entrapment are never clear.
Made ten years before The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) mirrors some of the situations and themes of that director’s 1972 masterpiece, particularly in its contempt for the idle rich and its unique mixture of surrealism and black comedy. Although Bunuel would later regard The Exterminating Angel as a disappointment, many film historians consider it one of the essential masterworks in the director’s oeuvre, second only to L’Age d’or (1930).
Although The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was considered by many to be a more polished and sophisticated production filmed in France – in color and Cinemascope – and featured a cast of renowned European actors (Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stephane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Bulle Ogier), The Exterminating Angel is arguably the more impactful film with its starkly realistic black-and-white cinematography by the great Gabriel Figueroa, the lack of a music score and its unrelenting attack on organized religion, bourgeois values and other targets, rendered in imagery that still has the power to shock.
Synopsis: A group of socially prominent guests arrive for a formal dinner party but find themselves unable to leave the drawing room after the meal. Some unexplainable force prevents their escape and as time passes the social order begins to break down. The guests give in to fear, superstitions and irrational acts as the disasters mount; one man has a heart attack and his body is hidden in the closet, two lovers commit suicide and a cancer-ridden guest is deprived of his morphine. A sheep intended for an after-dinner skit is slaughtered for food and a marauding bear crashes the party. Only one person, Leticia (Silvia Pinal), holds the key to the group’s unexplainable entrapment which she discovers in a surprising denouement.
According to Bunuel, the title came from the Bible but it was also a reference to both a Spanish cult, the apostolics of 1828, and a group of Mormons. He also loved the sound of it. As he stated in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, “If I saw The Exterminating Angel on a marquee, I’d go in and see it on the spot.”
Another source claims the working title was actually The Castaways of Providence Street but was changed to The Exterminating Angel, the proposed name for a play by Bunuel’s friend, Jose Bergamin, that was never written.
As for the story, the director mostly improvised as he went along, embellishing the basic situation with stylistic decisions – the use of repetition, a circular narrative structure and autobiographical details. Bunuel liked repetition in his films because of its hypnotic and dreamlike effect and stated in an interview with Tomas Perez Turrent that “When I finished the editing [on The Exterminating Angel], Gabriel Figueroa, the cinematographer, rushed up to me very alarmed: ‘Listen sir, there’s something wrong with the print. A scene is repeated. The editor must have made a mistake.” I told him, “But Gabriel, I always do my own editing. Besides, you were my cinematographer and you know that when we repeated the scene, we shot it from another angle. I repeated the scene on purpose…” “Ah, now I see,” he said, but he looked really frightened.”
In My Last Sigh, Bunuel also revealed “there are many things in the film taken directly from life. I went to a large dinner party in New York where the hostess had decided to amuse her guests by staging various surprises: for example, a waiter who stretched out to take a nap on the carpet in the middle of dinner while he was carrying a tray of food. (In the film, of course, the guests don’t find his antics quite so amusing.) She also brought in a bear and two sheep.”
One reason Bunuel was disappointed with the completed version of The Exterminating Angel is because it didn’t go far enough. He felt he censored himself and if he remade it he would have depicted the breakdown of the social order over the period of a month with the dinner guests resorting to cannibalism and worse.
He also felt hampered by the low budget which prevented him from being able to afford more realistic props such as fancy dinner napkins for the table. Nevertheless, Bunuel still delighted in confounding critics and moviegoers who tried to interpret the film’s meaning.
For one scene, Bunuel said, “It suddenly occurred to me that Silvia [Rosa Elena Durgel] should tie a blindfold around the sheep’s eyes and hand Nobile [Enrique Rambal] the dagger. And that was that. Completely improvised, without any thought to whether anything was symbolic. A good symbol of nothing. Despite this, several critics gave various interpretations of the scene. The sheep represented Christianity, the knife, blasphemy…I intended none of that, everything was arbitrary. I only tried to evoke some sort of disturbing image.”
One unforgettable image – in a dream sequence – was that of a crawling severed hand, a popular visual motif for Bunuel. He used it as the basis for his aborted 1946 Hollywood film for Warner Bros., The Beast with Five Fingers (he left the project and Robert Florey completed it).
He originally introduced that image in Un Chien Andalou (1929), his landmark surrealistic short (a collaboration with artist Salvador Dali) that opens with an eyeball being slit with a straight razor before moving on to a scene of ants devouring a severed hand.
When The Exterminating Angel was screened at the Cannes Film Festival it was coolly received. Biographer Francisco Aranda wrote in his book, Luis Bunuel, “…when the critics at the Cannes press conference asked Juan Luis why there is a bear in the film, wandering through a smart party, he answered, “Because my father likes bears.” It’s true. There are those who interpret the bear as the Soviet Union about to devour the bourgeoisie. That is nonsense…People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”
The Exterminating Angel was made toward the beginning of Bunuel’s extraordinary resurgence in the sixties which began with Viridiana (1961) and continued with such career milestones as Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Simon of the Desert (1965), and Belle de Jour (1967). “In some ways Bunuel’s most baffling film,” reads the entry in The Oxford Companion to Film, “it can be read as a social allegory or as a complex exercise in the irrational…”
Originally released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in February 2009, The Exterminating Angel was upgraded to Blu-ray by the company in December 2016 and includes some fascinating extra features like the 2008 documentary The Last Script: Remember Luis Bunuel, an interview with Silvia Pinal and more.
*This is an revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other links of interest: