Written by: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal, Jacqueline Andere, Nadia Haro Oliva, Ofelia Montesco
Societal rules often come unwritten but maintain a delirious stranglehold even to those holding all of the power. It allows for inexplicable things to be done in the name of remaining polite or following the expectations set for people within a specific social circle. As biting as any other work in prodding the upper-class, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel cuts through all of the nonsense and incisively tells a message with plenty of satire but ruthlessly poignant.
During a very formal dinner party hosted by Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal), all of the guests enjoy their experience with each other’s company. However, around the time when the people normally would leave, they decide to get comfortable and sleep in the music room. As the days continue it appears the guests and hosts cannot leave the room with no distinguishable reason why.
Offered up with no rational explanation, having these upper-class individuals struggle to leave a room for an entire runtime turns into one of the funniest stories put to film. Sure, it does not carry plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but when seen as a whole textual and subtextual criticism of rich people in Franco’s regime in Spain, it proves to be all one big joke. These people, after all, benefit from the atrocities being done in the country around them where they ignore their workers as something grossly beneath them. This gets shown with the complete disregard of the working class individuals interspersed throughout the film, but the story remains on these rich individuals and how quickly decorum can break down.
Attending this dinner party, are some well-connected individuals who display their disregard for the workers, which makes the disappearance throughout the film the ultimate dilapidation. These rich individuals fancy themselves as movers of things in this world but with no staff there to cater to their every whim, they completely capitulate to the point where they cannot even leave a room successfully. This criticism comes out overtly but the real comedy arrives from the lack of acknowledgment at first. When spending time in the music room following the dinner, societal norms work in full function. These individuals converse about the topics they always gravitate around and when someone gets bored and achieves everything they want, they’ll make up a reason to vacate and go home. Whether they’re tired or they have to go tuck in their kids, the first group leaving then gives the cue for everyone else to begin their departure as well. It becomes this unwritten contract everyone signs when entering a social gathering.
Once the guests not only refuse to leave but also begin to get even more comfortable by taking off their jackets and finding room on the couches to use as potential beds, it creates social norms hell for the hosts and everyone involved. These particular scenes felt like a horror film where I kept yelling, “what are you doing” at the screen as if it’s a protagonist following a spooky sound down a darkened hallway. This only begins the descent as these individuals cannot leave and any form of decorum left gets thrown out the window and fingers begin to get pointed as to who remains at fault for this situation. All pretense erodes and these high-class individuals descend into a level of primal rage they would mock others for displaying.
Luis Buñuel’s passion for mocking the rich has become his calling card throughout his career with this film and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie being his crowning jewels. He has no qualms in poking at the upper class for the blatant hypocrisy they espouse every day while looking down at others who would behave in the same way. Buñuel ensures this story serves as both an evisceration but also a strong piece of entertainment because some segments have shocking revelations while also becoming quite the treat of how bad this descent falls. He provides no easy solution as the people cannot leave the room with no explanation given, as he left it for audience interpretation. This seemingly magnetic force could be many things keeping them contained to a specific space and any conclusion gets right at the same message: These successful people cannot do anything without their support staff or directions. It makes you think what the true definition of success should be in this particular context.
Endlessly fun as a topic and something to continually analyze for the different ideas it wrestles with The Exterminating Angel matches profundity with absurdity. It takes an unexplainable phenomenon and attributes the harshest of criticisms to those appeasing, if not encouraging the madness happening around them under a brutal regime. Buñuel once again does not hold back with his scathing criticism and ensures to make his grand message remains quite clear even if the details can be interpreted to our liking.