The Luis Buñuel Project – The Exterminating Angel

Viridiana, by its creators’ general consensus, had been a very successful film, despite having been banned in Spain, where Buñuel had shot it. General Franco, honestly, hadn’t found it all that incendiary, but the powerful Spanish clergy, following the Vatican’s lead, were infuriated, and convinced Franco to forbid its presentation in Spain. It wasn’t until 1977 that Spaniards were allowed to exhibit the film.

Buñuel had made the acquaintance of Gustavo Alatriste a few years earlier in Mexico, and when the successful and wealthy Alatriste decided to invest in filmmaking (no doubt at the gentle urging of his wife, the actress Silvia Pinal), Buñuel was amenable to having Alatriste produce both Viridiana and his next film, which started out as The Castaways Of Providence Street, but was, upon script completion, titled The Exterminating Angel (El Ángel Exterminador) (Mexico, 1962). The castaways part was a reference to Gericault’s famous painting of The Raft Of The Medusa, but another writer friend of Buñuel’s had used The Exterminating Angel (a reference to Abaddon (in Hebrew), or Exterminus (in Latin) who was the King of the Locusts in Revelations, and the first harbinger of the destruction of the Earth’s population after the 144,000 are saved) as a title for a play he’d never finished. Buñuel appropriated the title with the writer’s blessing, and the rest is film history.

Blanca, Dr. Conte, Colonel Alvaro, Julio and Lucia de Nobilé - "The Exterminating Angel."  credit:

Blanca, Dr. Conte, Colonel Alvaro, Julio and Lucia de Nobilé – “The Exterminating Angel.” credit:

The story rests on a simple idea; having gathered at a wealthy couple’s stately home for an after-the-opera dinner, the hosts, their maître d’ and their guests, (19 people, altogether) find they cannot leave the music room they’d all gathered in after the meal. There are no physical barriers or supernatural force fields; they simply lose the will to proceed when they reach the wide open doorway that leads to the next room, individually and collectively. They settle in to the various chairs and sofas, find spots on the floor to stretch out, and spend the night, assuming they’ll just leave in the morning. But, much to the consternation of their hosts, they don’t. Or can’t. And nights turn to weeks, as a crowd gathers outside the house, cognizant of the fact that its inhabitants are trapped inside. But the people outside are no more able to enter the home’s entry gate than those inside are to walk out.

The situation lends itself to symbolic speculation, but Buñuel insists that the reasons for their imprisonment, their ‘shipwrecked’ state, are unimportant; it’s a surrealist device. What’s important to Buñuel is how these people function within that situation. The crisply-tuxedoed, stylishly coiffed-and-gowned haute bourgeoisie are generally stiff and pretentious at the start of the evening’s gathering, and Buñuel has some surrealist fun at their expense. The kitchen staff, inexplicably, already knows to start sneaking their way out of the house just before the guests arrive. Two of the male guests meet three times in fairly quick succession – the first is a warm introduction by a third, the second is them recognizing each other as old friends, and the third is an introduction by a third where they regard each other coldly, warily. The entrance of the guests themselves into the palatial house happens twice, while two escaping kitchen workers wait through both entrances in real time before leaving. The evening’s host, Edmundo Nobilé (Enrique Rambal) makes the same toast to the opera’s prima donna twice. When the first course is presented on a large silver salver, the waiter trips on his own feet and falls flat on his face, sending the food flying everywhere. The guests howl with laughter and derision, and assume it’s a prank-on-purpose. We think we’re sharing the hostess’ mortification (she’s Lucia de Nobilé [Lucy Gallardo]) as she marches to the kitchen. But, out of the guests earshot, she informs the maître d’, Julio (Claudio Brook) that one of her guests, the taciturn Mr. Russel, wasn’t amused, and that he should therefore cancel the planned entrance of a small bear and three goats that she had also arranged as a surprise. After dinner, they all retire to the music room, save for Leticia, “the Valkyrie” (Silvia Pinal), whom, as a lark or an omen, throws one of the dessert ramekins through the dining room window. “Some Jew passing by,” quips Leandro.

Up until now, everyone had been on their best behavior. After Blanca’s piano performance of a short sonata, their praise is effusive, even if a few of the comments (“Pity there was no harpsichord,” “Please play some Scarlatti next”) seem damning with faint praise. It’s here that the aforementioned third not-so-friendly introduction, between Cristián Ugalde and Leandro Gomez occurs – yet another hint of unpleasantness to come. Cristián’s wife, Rita (Patricia Morán) is discussing her pregnancy with Lucia and another guest – “This is the fourth, isn’t it?” Cristián is asked. “Actually, I’ve lost track, ma’am,” he deadpans. Lucia arranges to meet her secret lover, the retired-hero-Colonel Alvaro (César del Campo) in the bedroom, unconcerned that Edmundo might interrupt them. Edmundo and Lucia, as the hosts, are somewhat put-off that their guests (Lucia’s lover among them) are slowly turning the music room into a campsite, but Edmundo, the ever-gracious host, indulges it amiably.

Edmundo Nobilé and Leticia, "The Valkyrie" - The Exterminating Angel."  credit:

Edmundo Nobilé and Leticia, “The Valkyrie” – The Exterminating Angel.” credit:

When everyone wakes in the morning, Lucia has Julio serve dinner leftovers for breakfast, and coffee. Julio, unlike the others, has been going back and forth between rooms performing his duties, but upon serving the breakfast spread, he finds he can’t leave the room, either; he and Blanca, the pianist, slump onto chairs just inside the doorway, struck with a mysterious despair.

One of the projects Buñuel was considering before Viridiana was an adaptation of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies. The Raft Of The Medusa is an obvious touchstone here; Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos) is also cited as an influence. “Hell is other people (L’enfer, c’est les autres)” is a sentiment Buñuel might pass along here as well, but without Golding’s or Sartre’s earnest humorlessness. Civility disintegrates quickly and consistently as the days, then weeks, go by. A guest likens their predicament to a train crash she survived, whereupon a third-class car was crushed: “I think the lower classes are less sensitive to pain,” says Rita, in sympathy to her friend. When the bullying Raul (Tito Junco) accuses Edmundo of trapping them there deliberately, Leticia slaps him derisively. Days before, a young man decided the water in the plant vases was too funky – now the other guests note that the same young man drinks from them anyway. A small closet full of ceramic vases becomes the communal latrine, yet the women emerging from it have visions of mountain landscapes, flowing rivers and eagles passing overhead.

'The Exterminating Angel"  credit -

‘The Exterminating Angel” credit –

In the following days, the men take an antique axe and dig into the interior wall, exposing a water pipe for all of them to use; of course, letting the women drink first sets off another near-brawl amongst the men who aren’t interested in waiting. Mr. Russel’s heart gives out and he dies; the body is shuttled into another closet. Julio, at this point, offers to share the plateful of crumpled paper bits he’s eating. Doctor Carlos Conde’s patient, Leonora (Augusto Benedico and Bertha Moss, respectively), implores him to join her on a pilgrimage to Lourdes after they escape their ordeal in this house. “When we get to Lourdes, I want you to buy me one of those washable plastic Virgins. You will, won’t you?” A young, ardently devoted couple, who have missed their own wedding, commits suicide in one of the other closets, to the apparent dark amusement of many of the guests upon discovery, which seems a little inappropriate until it dawns on us, the viewers, that we’ve been having the same darkly amused sense of schadenfreude towards the whole situation that  Buñuel has been regaling us with. And just when you think things might not be all that funny anymore, the bear and the goats get loose inside the house – when the goats enter the music room, it quickly becomes a barbecue pit (with furniture, paintings and musical instruments feeding he fire) while the bear shambles happily through the rest of the house.

"The Exterminating Angel" -   credit:

“The Exterminating Angel” – credit:

The movie is tricky; obviously Buñuel is sending up the social constructs of his ‘castaways,’ and how their manners, rituals, co-dependence, condescension and prejudices entrap them, but there’s much more going on than simple symbols or allegories. There isn’t a reason in the world why any one of them can’t walk through that doorway, and yet none will, even for their own self-preservation. Nor will the friends, families and returning kitchen employees of those trapped within set foot on the grounds to discover what’s happening and/or lead them out. When they do finally figure out how to leave (a strategy that seems just as surreal as their reasons for staying in the first place), they all go home, clean up, and head for church (of course) to attend a mass that the Nobilés have arranged as a Te Deum (thanks for a specific blessing). When the Mass ends, the priests exit the chapel…except… they stop at the doorway. Looking behind them, the congregants, as well, show little impulse or interest in walking outside. And as the film ends, a flock of twenty or thirty sheep make their way to the church’s entrance…

On the whole, Buñuel was content with the film – Alatriste left him alone to make the film he wanted to make, a luxury that his previous producers, even Oscar Dancigers, had rarely afforded him. It was also his most forthrightly surrealist film since L’Age D’Or, 32 years earlier. Buñuel, though, like most serious artists, claimed he could only see mistakes and missed opportunities – he would have preferred to have shot the film in Europe, either London or Paris (the Mexican film industry was at a pretty low ebb in the early 60s), and Alatriste had been a little stingier with this budget than he’d been with Viridiana. But I suspect Buñuel couldn’t have helped but smile when Alatriste, watching the finished film, concluded, “I don’t understand a thing in it. It’s marvelous!”

In the BFI / Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, The Exterminating Angel is 202nd with critics, 132nd with directors (a tie with Belle Du Jour). Buñuel is perennially in the conversation when people discuss their favorite films of all time, and The Exterminating Angel is always near the top of those conversations about Buñuel. He would make one more interesting film with Gustavo Alatriste and Silvia Pinal in Mexico, Simon Of The Desert in 1965, but next up on the Project is Diary Of A Chambermaid, more progress in Buñuel’s goal to return to exclusively European filmmaking.






The Best Foreign Films of 2013

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in 'Blue Is The Warmest Color.'  credit:

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color.’ credit:

Last year’s list was 8, and, for no reason in particular, I ended up at 8 this year, too. I’ve listed them 8 through 1, but those certainly aren’t hard boundaries – the order of 3 through 8 is more feel than heartfelt fact. But 1 and 2 are the real deal, and should be hunted down and seen.

I must also add my usual disclaimer: “Film criticism, for me, is, unfortunately a part-time job. I missed a few films that will surely appear on others’ lists, and have included a few films that I saw but couldn’t review at the time. But these are all splendid alternatives to the Hollywood mainstream, and I encourage you to seek these wonderful films out.”

8. Sister (France / Switzerland, 2012) – it was a good year for the impressive French actress Léa Seydoux, but the real star here is the younger Kacey Mottet Klein, a teenager keeping himself and his sister out of the jaws of abject poverty by running his own personal black market out of a cushy Swiss ski resort. “(Ursula) Meier has a lot to say about these particular characters, and the world we share with them; the nobility, or anonymity, that hard work can confer, legitimately or illicitly, and the various ways families are formed, sometimes lovingly, sometimes desperately. Simon’s daily trips from valley to mountaintop are a stark metaphor for the world we all live in today – he (and we) travel the distance between in isolation, in midair, with firm footing far, far away from us.”

7. Tabu (Portugal, 2012) – there’s a reverence in Miguel Gomes old-fashioned black-and-white cinematography (shot by Rui Poças) that has more on its mind than just simple nostalgia for that style (my big problem with Pablo Larrain’s No; visually interesting? Sure. Germane to the actual story being told? No.) “Gomes’ reverse-juxtaposition – a man’s ritualized fall into a sorrow-fueled limbo, followed by the small, everyday existences of a group of people in present-day Lisbon, followed by a tale of white colonial privilege and forbidden love not too far removed from F. Scott Fitzgerald or Marguerite Duras – continuously echoes back on itself, and the final third enriches what has come before in profoundly resonant ways.”

6. Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube) (Austria, 2012) – the second of Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy of three related women and the moral and cultural extremes to which their otherwise normal lives have led them. Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), in this film, is a relentless proselytizer for the new love of her life, Jesus Christ, and takes her crusade to some hard-to-watch extremes. The uninvited appearance of her ex-husband, a paraplegic and devout Muslim, adds more stations-of-the-cross for her. But Seidl has no intention of presenting a freak-show put-down of Anna Maria’s choices – in fact, there’s something like real admiration here. “Seidl knows that the gradual path to what we might view as extreme behavior is paved with the same quotidian cultural forces and experiences that every one of us encounters in our own lives, and that we may draw very different lines and boundaries from these characters… Anna Maria has fashioned a shape and structure to her life that protects and consoles her – Seidl isn’t specific about the events that have channeled her into this extraordinary existence, but we have enough information to understand that her life experiences aren’t all that different from ours. He’s unapologetically explicit about the details of where these women’s lives have led them, but his empathy is just as explicit.”

5. In The House (Dans La Maison) (France, 2012) – François Ozon’s film isn’t just a good looking, tricky wish-fulfillment soap opera; it’s a pretty engaging examination of the power of storytelling, and how willfully we’ll suspend our disbelief, and the shapes of our lives, in service to the stories and cultural mythologies that affect us, for better or worse. And it’s a pleasure to see real acting pros at work; Fabrice Luchini, Emmanuelle Seigneur, Kristin Scott Thomas and the young Ernst Umhauer are all very happy to work their asses off for Ozon here.

4. The Returned (Les Revenants) (France, 2012) – Back in 2004, there was a pretty lousy movie released in France called They Came Back (Les Revenants), which suffered the inconspicuous banishment fate of many failed variations on a particular horror theme. But a very talented writer and director, Fabrice Gobert, took the intriguing premise of this lousy film and created an astonishingly good television mini-series. The series opens with a tragedy in a smallish rural town – a school bus full of teenagers plunges off of a cliff, with no survivors. But, four years later, one young girl emerges from the forest embankment, walks home, raids the fridge and says hello to her dumbstruck mother. She’s not a ghost, or a zombie, or a spirit; she’s simply Her, picking up where she left off. And so is another young man who committed suicide on his wedding day, ten years ago, now knocking on his fiancée’s door. And so is the small boy, ‘Victor,’ murdered with his family thirty years ago by home invaders. And so is Serge, a cannibalistic serial killer buried alive by his brother seven years ago. How can all this be happening? And why? This is smart, wonderful and genuinely frightening stuff, and there’s a serious list of superb French actors participating here: Anne Consigny, Celine Sallette, Clothilde Hesme, Frédéric Pierrot, Guillaume Gouix, Jean-François Sivadier… It’s been showing on the Sundance Channel, I suspect its Netflix availability is imminent, and production on a second season has been announced. Welcome to your new TV series addiction.

3. The Grandmaster (Hong Kong / China, 2013) – For the geeks, there’s a pretty thorough presentation of how martial arts traditions, and particular fighting styles, developed in the early twentieth century; for the romantics, there’s the thread of unrequited love and admiration between two passionate artists fighting against the forces of history and tragedy; and for the cinephiles, there’s Wong Kar Wei’s impossibly gorgeous and evocative visual compositions and editing rhythms. Seek out the 130 minute Chinese version, rather than the 108 minute Weinstein-ified American release, and go swimming in the delicious cinematic luxury and intelligence that Wong Kar Wei has been dishing out for years.

2. The Hunt (Jagten) (Denmark, 2012) – it’s been a good year for Mads Mikkelsen, too, Léa; his impressive turn in the best-foreign-film-nominated A Royal Affair was shown here in February, and he was an STFU rejoinder to the question “Why would anyone make a Hannibal Lector TV series?!” But his killer performance here happily coincided with director Thomas Vinterberg’s inclination to back off of some previous stylized heavy-handedness (2003’s It’s All About Love had the admirable services of Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Strong and Sean Penn, and it’s still damned near unwatchable). Vinterberg wrote this script with Tobias Lindholm (who also gave us the impressive A Hijacking, a far better film than Captain Phillips), got Mikkelsen, and then efficiently and mercilessly served the story, and all three of them delivered the second-best film of the year in the world, English-speaking and otherwise. A mild-mannered-but-nobody’s-fool schoolteacher faces down accusations of child sexual harassment in Denmark, but this meticulous and harrowing film is dead-on relevant for us, too.

1. Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2) (France / Belgium / Spain, 2013) – as important a cinematic cultural signifier in 2013 as Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris was in  1972. But, these days, there’s no Pauline Kael around to tell us how important this film really is. (I can’t help but wonder what Roger Ebert would have thought of this film – I indulgently suspect he would have found it as rapturously-yet-resolutely-earthbound as I did.) I didn’t mind the few critical negative reviews – it’s not a film for all audiences – but Drew Hunt’s glib dismissal of the film in the Reader as “a dressed-up, overlong installment of Emmanuelle” may be the most tone-deaf piece of film criticism I’ve read in years. I worship this film, even if the Academy Awards isn’t going to go anywhere near it. Adèle Exarchopoulos makes, as John Updike might say, a “Tiger Woods-ian debut” as a girl surveying the treacherous terrain of young love, and suffering a loss that she’ll feel for the rest of her life (as have we all). The fact that it’s same-sex young love is wildly overrated; straight people of all ages and temperaments will understand, and empathize, with everything that happens here. And, trust me, the nine or ten minutes of fairly explicit sex is not a dealbreaker in this well-spent three hours. It’s a mind-blowing film for me, but, then, so is Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife Of Angels (France, 1998), and not very many people bothered with that one, either. Do your part to save this film from art-house obscurity, please.

P.S. – Blue Is The Warmest Color will be shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday, January 10th to 16th.

Sorry I missed, but worth checking out: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch Of Sin, Claire Denis’ Bastards, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake, Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds.