Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Exterminating Angel--Bunuel Review #7

The Exterminating Angel (1962)--5/5

One of Bunuel's most potent films and one of the most challenging to pin down in a review. Exterminating Angel follows a group of bourgeoisie unable to leave a dinner party... for a month. At first social niceties prevent them from leaving--everyone else is staying tonight, so shouldn't we? But it quickly becomes apparent after the butler serves breakfast that there is something else keeping them trapped there. People approach the threshold of the adjacent dining room and start to cry uncontrollably, the men try to reason their way out, eventually they all turn to religion. One group of women even try some aberrant sorcery with parts of a chicken. Eventually they all despair and several commit suicide. This film is so perfectly calibrated that you can chart the characters' devolution by gradual changes in their mannerisms and costumes--at first, the host and hostess consider chastising a couple of men who remove their tuxedo jackets, but by the end everyone is dressed down in clothes that look like dirty rags and engaged in plots to kill each other hoping to lift the curse.

This is apparently the only Mexican production that Bunuel had complete control over and, as such, it shines as one of the three or four masterpieces of this period (Los Olvidados, Ascent to Heaven and Simon of the Desert are also good candidates.)

The Exterminating Angel is a close cousin of Bunuel's other black comedies about the upper crust, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and L'Age D'Or, but where a lot of elements of those films play as comedy, a lot of this film is just black. L'Age D'Or is completely wild and irreverent, the film of a younger man excitedly yelling "fuck you!" at bourgeois society, and Discreet Charm is the film of an old man, happily ensconced in art houses and cinema canons worldwide, picking fun at his old adversaries. Exterminating Angel is Bunuel coming off his first international success in years--Viridiana, which won him the Palm D'Or at Cannes in 1961--and using that success to conduct a methodical, even etymological, study of vicious third-world bourgeois, who he'd then been living among for more than ten years. It's as if these bourgeois characters were a colony of fire ants, headless without a queen, or sheep lost on a rocky precipice without a shepherd, doomed to suffering and death because of who and what they are by some surreal-absurdist form of divine vengeance, which may only be a metaphor, as the closing sequence suggests, for a popular uprising. As is characteristic of Bunuel's best Mexican films, this film is brutal, disaffected socially-conscious art.

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