“The Exterminating Angel” – A.J. Hakari

Maybe it’s the sadist in me, but I get excited whenever I come across a film in which the rich get their comeuppance. It’s a premise most everyone can get behind, seeing members of the upper class trapped in a situation they can’t buy their way out of. This idea has been the backbone for many a thought-provoking picture, though few have been quite as unique as surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. By treating the story more as a case study than a traditional narrative, Buñuel casts the viewer in the role of sociologist, witnessing firsthand how fast things crumble when man is stripped of the most inconsequential of luxuries.

The Exterminating Angel cordially invites you to a dinner party you won’t soon forget. After a night at the opera, the well-to-do Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucia (Lucy Gallardo) invite 20 of their friends for a little get-together at their spacious abode. Lodge members congregate, lovers plan their latest tryst, and all-around cattiness runs rampant amongst society’s “finest.” But something truly bizarre is about to take place this evening. With all of the servants having scurried home, the Nobiles find themselves hopeless when their guests suddenly decide to crash for the night. However, the games truly begin the next morning, when the guests find themselves confined to the Nobiles’ living room, simply unable to leave for one reason or another. As the days stretch on, panic and paranoia start to settle in amongst the guests, who turn to God, witchcraft, or even suicide as a means of escaping their baffling predicament.

It’s incredibly easy for a film that doesn’t tread the beaten path to get lost in its own weirdness, to conjure enough puzzling material to give David Lynch nightmares. But I’m glad Buñuel kept his taste for the bizarre in check for The Exterminating Angel, since the story, teeming with the potential for all-out societal warfare, is one that should be handled with care. The concept isn’t too far from that of Groundhog Day, only the eternal day experienced by the characters is more figurative than literal. There’s a definite passage of time, but Buñuel’s subjects remain none the wiser as to how to break out of their newfound prison. If Buñuel’s treatment of the characters seems cold and detached, that’s because it’s the best route to take. Buñuel makes this bunch of affluent whiners work things out by themselves, forcing them to earn our sympathy rather than hijack it right off the bat. The road to moral purity is a bit harder for those who maintain the illusion of order and entitlement in a situation in which there is none, but Buñuel never completely quashes the possibility of hope.

In any case, The Exterminating Angel grabs your attention, thanks to its mixture of social commentary and well-balanced weirdness. It should be said that there’s no explanation for why the Nobiles and their friends are stuck in the room, just that they are. Buñuel hints that it’s through the characters’ own doing, that saving face and “being a good guest” is what has them trapped to begin with. In any case, it works as both a catalyst for the guests’ gradual breakdown and as a metaphor for their self-imposed prison of opulence. It’s interesting to see how these people react to their captivity; precious few, including head butler Julio (Claudio Brook), try to help one another adapt, while the vast majority selfishly carry on with their respective dramas. Such behavior is both troubling and realistic, a true indicator that cash doesn’t necessarily equal out to happiness (the title is a clue as to where redemption should be ultimately sought). Since the film is more of a group effort than anything, don’t expect any individual performances to stand out, although Brook and Rambal do well as two of the more considerate captives.

With a rather grim and blunt view of humanity, not to mention an overall strange story, The Exterminating Angel will not appeal to all tastes. On the flipside, not only is it challenging and offbeat, it manages to be so without compromising what it has to say. It takes some effort to be both weird and thoughtful, but The Exterminating Angel has no problem meeting this challenge.

Rating: ★★★½

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s The Exterminating Angel review here.

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