“Exterminating Angel” was directed by the Spanish Surrealist Luis Bunuel, but is a Mexican production as he was living there at this time. It’s about a group of rich people who gather together for a dinner, only to discover that for reasons unknown they can’t leave.
Surrealism, whether it is in art, literature, or film, suggests that the workings of the unconscious mind and the illogical nature of this is more important than rational thought. So when we are watching a film such as this, we should not expect to find answers or to necessarily understand everything. The so-called theatre of the absurd has a similar end in view – the rejection of narrative continuity and logic. Bunuel is both surrealist and absurdist in this film.
The film starts with the servants preparing the fancy dinner. Only little by little, the servants start to leave. They can’t entirely understand why, only that they feel compelled to get out of the building. Eventually only the butler remains to serve the guests. During the evening the small talk tells us that these upper class people are quite superficial. They gossip about one another and are catty and condescending. They openly cheat on their spouses without any hesitation. When the butler falls over and spills food, the guests laugh and clap as if the accident was a deliberate entertainment for them. A man, when asked how many children he has, says he’s not sure. This sets up the subsequent events by telling us that no one in this room is particularly nice.
In keeping with the surrealism, there is no obstacle to them leaving the room. The door is wide open. It’s just that no one can bring themselves to go through. Initially they just keep making excuses not to, but eventually realise they cannot. Some of the men get angry, but they express this by volunteering each other – ‘you have to make an effort’. They hope that someone will come looking for them, not realising that no one outside can bring themselves to go in.
This has the result of stripping away the veneer of sophistication to see what’s underneath. The food is quickly exhausted, leading to a scene where the butler talks to one of the women about eating paper, explaining that it will not hurt her and will fill her up. They break into the wall to access water from a pipe, and the genteel people fight each other to get to the water. They plot against each other and scheme for their own ends. The manners and show that they value are quickly shown to have no worth or depth when things get tough.
Bunuel achieves much of this by the generic nature of the characters. As we watch we see that no one really stands out much, but that is quite deliberate. These people are virtually interchangeable, because they subsume whatever is unique to themselves in exchange for a superficial veneer of manners that is expected in their social circle. They dress the same, talk the same, behave the same. They have lost their own personalities.
Bunuel throws in random moments that remind us of the surrealism of the situation. While the meal is still ongoing, the hostess instructs the butler to put a bear and some sheep outside. What a bear and sheep are doing in the house in the first place is never explained. Later the sheep wander into the room where the (by now, hungry) people are trapped and meet the obvious fate. Also early on a woman reaches into her bag and there seems to be a dead chicken in there. Later she brings out chicken parts, and attempts to hold some sort of ritual with two of the other women in order to free them. (It is unsuccessful.) One of the men is sick at the start of the evening, and dies because they can’t get him help. So they put him in a cupboard, and the only time he is mentioned after that is when people complain about the smell. They show no real distress about his death. One of the women hallucinates a severed hand moving about the room, and nearly stabs one of the others because she thinks she’s stabbing the hand. Another woman raves that she wants to go to Lourdes if spared, and asks a man to go with he and buy her a ‘washable plastic virgin’. We could read some meaning into that about the behaviour of those in the room – plastic personas, able to wash off their sins to remain pure. The owner of the house reveals he has some drugs in the room for recreational purposes, and gives them to the doctor to help those who are getting sick. Naturally one of the others immediately wants to steal the drugs to get high. To of the group who have been going into one of the closets to have sex, commit suicide. Nobody seems that bothered by this either. Ultimately most of the group decide that the owner of the house is somehow responsible for their situation and want to kill him. They’ve been using a closet full of vases to relieve themselves, and some of the women start to speak randomly about seeing eagles in the closet and so forth.
What is the exterminating angel? It’s a Biblical reference from the Book of Revelation, mentioned only once during the film. I think the only thing exterminating these people is their own greed and immorality. It’s hard to feel sorry for any of them.
Bunuel was on record as having no great love for the wealthy. As such he is definitely satirising them by setting up a situation that cuts them down to size. He stated about the film that some hugh society parties never seemed to end, which is where he got the idea. He can be said to be making a statement about people in general – after all, it does tend to be when things become difficult that people show their true nature, so stripping them of the necessities of life is a good way to illustrate just how unattractive people can be. But I think there is no point in looking for reasons behind what has occurred, or tying it all up into a neat bow at the end. It is surrealism – consistency and logic is not the purpose. Just sit back and experience a bizarre and random film for its own sake.