Dinner with The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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To view The Exterminating Angel click here.

What does it all mean? Does it matter? There’s a dinner party but before the guests have even arrived, the servants start taking the night off. First it’s just one, then two more, then another two, until finally only the head butler is left. But we know something strange is taking place even before they all go. When two of the women working in the kitchen start to head out of the house, they stop because they see the guests coming in and so they go back and hide. Simple enough. But when they emerge from hiding they see the exact same guests entering again, just as they did before and, again, the women have to hide. Are we seeing an alternate reality the second time around or just history repeating itself? The elite just keep showing up and the servants keep leaving. Then, curiously, they all choose to stay instead of going home. The next day, they realize it’s no longer a choice. The music room off the dining room is where they are and leaving is no longer an option. The movie is Luis Buñuel’s 1962 classic The Exterminating Angel and what it means could be meaningless.

The Exterminating Angel has been interpreted a thousand different ways with most people falling on the side of the elite dinner guests representing the upper class during the reign of Franco. Under this microscope slide, we can examine the rich enjoying the spoils of the working class while those very working people hit the road. Left in an elitist bubble, the wealthy dinner guests, unable to leave or fend for themselves, break down and show off their worst colors. And so on and so on. Basically, an interpretation that either makes Buñuel, or the interpreter, look like a naïve child at best. Society breaking down?! The ruling class as inept and entitled children? No! Such a bold statement has rarely been made in the history of art! Seriously, if that’s all art is – connecting the dots until we’re able to say, “Eureka! I solved the puzzle!” – then we’re all in trouble, not just the rich people stuck in that room. Such an analysis of the film might make for a good jumping off point, but if that’s all it is then Buñuel isn’t saying anything he or any number of other artists haven’t already said. And maybe he’s not. If he’s not, is it worth it? Yes, I’d say it is.

There is no question that the movie Buñuel has written employs some fairly standard symbols. There are the literal sheep led to slaughter and if that didn’t hammer the point home, we later see the sheep going to hide in a church when chaos in the state breaks out. People are being gunned down on the street and the sheep run and hide behind religion. Then there’s the talk about the importance of social graces, the condescension towards the working class, the casual Antisemitism of the ruling class. It’s all there but we also get an exercise in simply seeing people under pressure for inexplicable reasons. By easing into their predicament, the movie reveals its greatest strength and becomes far more universal than any “this is the ruling class of Franco” reading can possibly hope for. It eases the characters into their situation by having all of its characters make decisions first and then become trapped by their choices. But it was free will all along.

First, there are the servants. They want to leave, they just can’t explain why. When the first servant, and later two more, are threatened with being fired if they leave, they leave anyway. One of the two women who leaves feels remorse. It’s just not right, she says, only to decide it’s something she has to do. Later, they cannot get back in.

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Inside, the guests decide to stay when the party’s over rather than leave. Several make no attempt at all. They simply lay down and go to sleep. It’s only the next day when they cannot help but comment on how odd it was that they all spent the night sleeping in chairs and sofas and on the floor in their dinner clothes that they feel the need to leave. Only now, they physically cannot. When any one of them approaches the archway separating the rooms, a wave of nausea overtakes them and they have to sit down. One man pushes another only to have him fall back into the room. A bear wanders freely in the other room. Previously, it was tied up in the kitchen but now it rules the roost.

I suppose even taking the movie in this vein can be simplistic. We all make choices, and we don’t always know why we chose the one we did. Later, after learning to live with it, we realize we are chained to it and everything we tried to keep under our control is quickly getting away from us. And that can be presented in any number of far subtler non-surreal narratives than a tale such as this. But here’s the thing: I sincerely believe, or should I say hope, that artists like Buñuel also come to an idea like this because why not make a movie where people can’t leave the room? Why not explore something that doesn’t fit into the limited narrative confines of realism? And why not have fun with it to boot? After all, Buñuel, to his credit, never made a surreal film that wasn’t filled with comedy. It’s when this kind of idea is presented with solemnity that it becomes unbearable to watch.

Buñuel never made a movie that reeked of academic seriousness. He ridiculed things, mostly, by way of blunt satire and surrealism. I can’t say for sure if he cared whether you got his point or not, as long as you took the ride. And with Buñuel at the wheel, it was always a ride worth taking.

Greg Ferrara

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3 Responses Dinner with The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Posted By Arthur : August 18, 2017 1:03 pm

Interesting analysis. You have found another way of viewing this fascinating film. You could be right. You could be wrong. One thing for sure, this is one of the many, many European films of the 50s and 60s that exhibit far more intelligence and intellectual stimulation than their American counterparts.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : August 19, 2017 7:54 am

I’ve never really thought this is an allegory for Spain under Franco (I know Roger Ebert thought that, and I think it was a naive interpretation). The allegory isn’t that specific. It’s the same thing Bunuel explored in every one of his films that I’ve seen: The artificial veneer of society, and the institutions that keep us “in line”. Trap ANY group of people in one place with limited resources for forty days and the conventions of society will break down (Bunuel later said that had he made this film ten years later he would have had them devolve into cannibalism). This film, for me, is kind of like the flip-side (and a prelude) to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 19, 2017 8:10 pm

Arthur, the sixties were a decade in which American film played catch up. Even by the time of Bonnie and Clyde , movies like that or 2001 a year later were still the exception rather than the rule.

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