Affluence is a stain, a privilege exclusive to the notorieties of one community in contrast to the other slices of society, underprivileged, oppressed, and living as mere cogs in a grand machine run by the elites, Marx called—the bourgeois. In The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel explores the world of the ostensible well-heeled benefactors of society, their social interaction, cognition, and the maquillage separating them from others, whilst forming a vivid imagery of their lives and times. The Father of Surrealism in Films, as he is known, the Spanish filmmaker made films in Spain, Mexico, and France—constructing a distinctive style heavy in alignment with the Surrealist Movement of the 1920s. Although, Luis Buñuel’s career spanned a decorating forty years, it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s, when he came on his own as a legendary filmmaker and creator of a niche, a Cinema most distinctively hailed as the Luis Buñuel Cinema.
The Exterminating Angel follows the tracks of Surrealism borrowing the lens of satire, a critique on the high society of Spain, almost reminiscent of the era around the Spanish Civil War. A group of prosperous families arrives at a dinner party organized by Señor y Señora Nobile. The high society dinner gathering reflects the mentality, the gimmicks of these elites and under the mask of cordiality and courtesy, we see shades of loathe, lust, envy, and disdain for one another—a cluster filled with pretentious charms and an abhor for the rest of humanity, perhaps even their own kind.
Joyful and full of merry, the invitees engage in mutual showcase of hypocrisy and have, what it appears, a glorious evening. After a beautiful piece of sonata by a woman, the etiquettes of the party fade away and the hour of departure approaches, but the guests find themselves unable to leave the lavish mansion, the music room, and opt to retire on the sofas, the chairs, and the floors of the room itself. Each of the guest reposes in the music room and by next morning, their inability to leave the premise becomes obvious. There is no physical reason for their apprehension, but precisely—apprehension it is, the psychological kind.
Since its release, The Exterminating Angel has gained a cult status. A metaphorical satire on the high society life, the movie may be set around Spanish diaspora, but as a cinema, the relevance could be stretched to all corners where the slant of class-based discrimination exists. Luis Buñuel takes a surreal approach, which is his forte, emphasizing on the communion of the subconscious and the conscious, the dream and the reality in formulating an austere story. It’s also ironical as the movie is almost comical to watch; the mockery viewers witness on the screen, mockery of human populous and the fictitious line of demarcation humans have drawn against their fellow humans, appears in a realist light.
Much similar to a group of people stranded in an isolated island, the degeneration of these assumptive individuals, claiming to be on the right side of the demarcation line, grow dreary as they find themselves stuck in a perverse predicament. Soon the inmates, if one would, grow desperate for freedom and basic human necessity, and turn into savage creatures morphing their demeanor from elegance to barbarianism—becoming the antithesis of their own beliefs and standpoints. Through such a stark mess, Luis Buñuel uses this vehicle to ridicule the presumptive and pompous nature of human beings. When it comes down to it, not one individual, save for a Buddha or a Jesus, could withstand the calling of savagery with a point vision to survive and live as humans and not creatures stuck in a tenacious fix. Whether part of the elites, or living as a meek proletariat, the theory of survival applies to all beings, and Luis Buñuel makes a practical statement on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs though this satirical drama—almost mystifying.
Whilst the guests are unable to leave because of their psychological make-up, not due to a physical defect, the rescuers outside the mansion aren’t capable of rescuing these stranded people either for the exact same reason. They just cannot seem to enter the mansion, even when they try. To put this into perspective, this inner apprehension might indicate the unwillingness of the high society people to allow others into their life and inner circle. Along with that, neither do these people care about those outside their society or dare and get closer to them, nor do the people from the other society dare or wish to come closer to these oppressors of life and living. Very symbolic indeed, The Exterminating Angel explores extermination of such insensible and ludicrous mechanisms that are neither real nor unreal, but exist as an omnipresent distortion of society.
When one of the women in the room (plot point ahead), La Valkiria (Silvia Pinal), as she is illusorily called, realizes the spatial positioning of all the guests—almost a replica of their positions during the twilight of the party, she pledges all to repeat their actions and seek liberation by accepting the right time in letting go, embracing change, and moving on. Letting go might be the central plug of the movie and unlike in the first instance, when the guests are rigid and pompous—stomping over others in their self-indulgence, this time around, the guests grow into miserable mortals having unmasked their illusions and forced to sustain as beings they’ve learned and lived to loathe all along. In simple words, when it’s time to release the grip, time to call it a day, or a time when one realizes that the only way back is forward, one should take the opportunity because life moves on and moving on is the only universal fact of life. The climax is revealing in similar ways. In almost a repeat of the same scenario, in a Church this time, people seem unable to leave. Armies take the initiative and fire gunshots this time, which could be representative of a revolution, or of hitting back. A cornered cat can be very dangerous—probably another analogy in a way to define this indefinable chapter.
The Exterminating Angel is classic cinema rich with a social message and presented in an immaculate style real to the surreal filmmaker. Serving as a metaphorical rendering of a universal theme, the movie is true to Luis Buñuel’s interpretation of cinema and one of the finest from the enigmatic director. Trying to find meanings to the symbols in the movie might be futile, even though, ironically, that has been the prime motive of this analysis. With that, The Exterminating Angel exterminates any other interpretation and endorses Buñuel’s vision of cinema as an artistic field—open to multiple interpretations. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say. In the case of this movie, a glaring, contrasting tale of social classes, Luis Buñuel’s effort magnifies the bizarre world through the way thoughts function and the manner in which thoughts aid in interpreting a situation. Interpretations are always subjective and as a school of Philosophy, Solipsism, adds—only one’s mind can be known. Any other form of reality may not exist; hence, reality is subjective and never objective. Frames the world of Luis Buñuel’s cinema in one line!