European Art Film: An Analysis of Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel”

 
     Whenever people utter the word ‘movie’, the first thing that pops into the listener’s mind is a narrative fictional movie, be it horror, thriller, crime, romance, comedy, or so on. However, there’s an entire genre dedicated to art movies, and the reason why they aren’t as popular is because they are targeted to a limited audience, rather than the typical mass audience. Most people go watch a movie, to kill time or escape the harsh reality yet in order to fully understand an art film one should keep an eye on the highly symbolic content within the movie, and try to makes sense out of the movie, even though it might seem impossible to do so. The Golden Age for art films was the sixties, for it was when rebellious European movies broke most of the rules of the traditional classical cinema established by Hollywood. Movies suddenly appeared without having a satisfying ending, in addition to that, the characters within the European art films would often go through a serious of events that they have no control over, and unlike in narrative fictional movies, they have no choice. In the midst of that age, a director by the name of Luis Bunuel reached his peak, and at the age of 60 through 70, he directed probably the greatest surreal European art films of all time, for he is to art films what Hitchcock is to suspense movies. 

In 1962, Bunuel directed probably his most analyzed and controversial movie, “The Exterminating Angel”. The plot revolves around a dinner party that takes place in a mansion. At the beginning of the party the servants escape for no apparent reason leaving only the head servant to serve the guests. Later on the guests arrive and even though they have finished eating knowing it is time to leave, they cannot get themselves to leave the salon. Bunuel does not use a score for the movie; for he doesn’t need it in this particular movie because it would not serve any purpose. As for mise-en-scene, the only aspect that seems consistant throughout the movie is the surreal environment. There isn’t just one true explanation or meaning to the movie, for each and everyone will most probably interpret it differently. The following argument is not fact or truth behind the movie; for it is simply a series of interpretations, that one viewer (me) went through during and after watching the movie a few times.

Statue of The Exterminating Angel in Comillas, Spain

The first reaction was that the entire movie was part of a dream; however, this could not possibly be true because even though the surreal aspects in the movie convey the feeling of experiencing a dream, it could not possibly be one since it isn’t told through the perspective of one character. It’s more like a presentation of surrealistic events taking place within a salon. The second affect it may have on a viewer is from a religious point of view. The title of the movie, refers to the exterminating angel who killed the first born child of Egypt, and so in order to make some sense of the movie, one could consider the fact that same angel may be punishing those high class guests. The exterminating angel does so by trapping them in an environment that forces them to deal with reality. Therefore, they snap out of their trapped world of mannerism. The angel punishes two lovers for having sexual intercourse in a small room with angel pictures displayed on the wallpapers by forcing them to commit suicide. At the same time, he forces the guests outside of the room to go through barbaric like behavior to show them the harsh reality of our human nature. After they escape, the guests end up trapped once again in a church, which implies that the angel now wants them to break free of their religious habits now that he succeded at breaking hem free of their high class manners.  In both, the salon and church traps, the angel sends them sheep so they could eat and survive. Both location are perfect for the angel’s tasks. Luis Bunuel was probably attacking both the high class of society and religion. The first viewing of, “The Exterminating Angel” is a very challenging one, and it is almost impossible for the viewer to understand the full meaning, still by concentrating on the details within the movie, one can at least interpret a meaning to the movie, even though it might not necessarily make sense.

    
Luis Bunuel movies are timeless in the sense that they force the average movie goer to think for a change. Instead of feeding the audience a basic story, Bunuel allows us as the audience to figure it out on our own leaving an impression that may last for hours after the movie’s credits have rolled. With “The Exterminating Angel”, the viewers are lucky enough to receive a statement by the director at the beginning of the movie. Therefore using that statement as a guide to make sense of the movie would be a very wise choice. The statement reads as follows “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” He also warns that the some might find the movie “disturbing”, and that it may not make sense at all. Besides the obvious message of Bunuel, that there shouldn’t be a reason for anything happening and his obvious destruction of casuality where cause and effect is not a feature in his movie, Bunuel might have given the viewer a hint to understanding the movie through his opening statement. He mentions that the movie might not make sense, that viewers may find it “disturbing”, and that “from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation”. Maybe Bunuel was trying to show that through picture and sound he expressed the strange and unexplainable aspects of life, the very things that we find “disturbing” and have “no explanation” for. There are two scenes where the dinner guests arrive, so they basically arrive twice in the movie, which might be considered a presentation of deja-vu by Bunuel better yet maybe he was touching on the whole history repeats itself concept. Either way, both fit into the categories of “disturbing” and are also one of the aspects of life that we have “no explanation” for. The movie is full of such material that made me think Bunuel’s movie may be symbolizing life; for life is like a salon, there is no escaping it.

Within that salon all kinds of disturbing and unexplainable incidents occur. One unexplainable behavior of our human nature is why people commit suicide, presented to us through the two lovers who commit suicide in a small room. The concept of dreaming is another thing that has no logic explanation, and Bunuel again touches upon it through the scene where a girl dreams and stabs a young woman’s hand while sleepwalking. In the repeated scenes where all the guests go to sleep, Bunuel might have also tried to express that at the end of the day, we all just go to sleep and accept the day as it was. Another unexplainable question is why people often choose to solve their problems using violence whether it’s war between two countries or a duel between two characters. The attraction humans tend to have towards violence is also evident  in the scene where the guests gather around the two dead lovers as a crowd trying to get a peak at what happened. The fact that at a time of crisis human beings tend to forget about manners and turn against each other is shown in the scene involving water  desperatley accessed through one of the pipes in a wall. These scenes all fit under the category of the unexplainable aspects of life and human behavior.

     The movie is definitely a study of human behavior in the sense that it includes a variety of characters with different characteristics, the judging ones, the perverted guy who tries to sexually abuse a woman in her sleep, a whiny childish man who still can’t let go of his mother, the two men who are addicted to gossip and talk about a girl who they assume is a virgin, the dying woman who looks forward to death, the list goes on and on.  Through those characters, Bunuel displays the negative aspects that are present in almost every society. In less than two hours, Luis Bunuel managed to touch all those various unexplainable and disturbing aspects of life, human behavior, and society. Throughout the duration and stay within the salon, a sense of a lifetime is conveyed, for just like by the end of most people’s lives, by the end of the guest’s stay inside the salon, the people are looking forward to death, one of them even yells “Doctor, why don’t you kill me already!” As the guests are finally able to leave the salon or “life”, a light appears at the outside of the building, just like “the light that we are supposed to see before death”, and the guests are back to reality. In the streets, soldiers are hitting rebels and the crowd, which was another subliminal message in the movie. Spain was probably under strict military rule and a closed society during that time, and the people were controlled by the military just like the guests were controlled by the salon being unable to leave. The entire movie is filled with unexpected events taking place, just like in reality, life is full of events that occur out of nowhere. We don’t know why they happen, they just do for no apparent reason. There’s only one cause and effect in the movie, the plot or material displayed on screen and the effect it has on the viewer. Luis Bunuel created a work of art with his masterpiece, “The Exterminating Angel”. It shouldn’t only be regarded as one of the greatest foreign movies or art films of all time, but one of the greatest movies period. Each viewing might cause an entirely different interpretation from the previous viewing, which is why the movie stand the test of time as a timeless masterpiece that demands to be viewed repeatedly.

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37 responses to this post.

  1. In the early 60s we (mexicans) weren’t under strict military rule (quite the opposite), it was until the late years of that decade that the military began repressing the society. Though we were under the strict control of the politicians (and we still) and of the prejudgment of the church against every aspect of this new life (rock’n’roll). I think if we want to find some kind of logic and social criticism in the work of Luis Buñuel we have to look back to the Spain of Franco where church and military government were the same thing. (even though a lot of Buñuel’s work was filmed in Mexico)

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    • I always thought his movies were about Spain and “The Exterminating Angel” was only filmed in Mexico because of him being exiled or forced to leeave the country. I’ll correct that.

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  2. You must see also “Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie” to see the back effect of “El Angel Exterminador”.. where the high-class people is unable to get any food or drink during the movie for surreal effects…

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  3. Unfortunately, often authors or directors aren´t exactly trustworthy when they speak about their own work, specially surrealists; particullary Buñuel. For example, he said he despised the film since he wanted to set it in France (hence the later The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie); he said there was no reason to the film, but sure there are lots of references, very intentional ones, to give it some meaning. He not only goes after bourgeosise and church; there are references to islam, freemasons, white and black magic…to analize Buñuel, you have to scrap him out of his work.

    As for “It shouldn’t only be regarded as one of the greatest foreign movies or art films of all time, but one of the greatest movies period.” Well, in Mexico it isn´t a “foreign film” nor if it was there would be no need to rescue it from the labelling.

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    • I agree with you 100%. Bunuel may have disliked this but we can’t judge by a director’s favorite film. Hitchcock prefered “Shadow of a Doubt” over “Vertigo” and “Psycho”. While I agree that it’s a great movie I prefer the other two over his favorite.

      Look at it this way, there must’ve been a reason for him making the movie in the first place :)

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  4. I watched it for the first time in small theater in early 2007 and I haven’t had second viewing yet despite having bought Criterion DVD last year. It was curious experience to see this masterpiece with few audience at that time. After one of funniest finale in movie history(I bursted out big laugh), nobody could leave the theater for a while because we could not get out of the place even though nobody blocked us(“We can wait until somebody leaves first…” – ‘You mean we’re locked!?”). Probably exterminating angel punished arthouse movie snobs like us at that time.

    Luckily we were out in 5 minutes and, as you see, I am very much alive. In that year, I virtually swept Bunuel’s filmography as far as I could and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” was the most favorite. The second half of it was non-stop giggling.

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    • :D Hehehe that’s a hilarious little tale. Thank God that angel let you go ;) had it sent you some sheep in there you would’ve been screwed. Hehehe! I’m thinking of rewatching “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. I remember seriously considering Bunuel as the greatest director of all time after watching it. Later I discovered that there is no such thing as a greatest director. Kubrick, Hitchcock, Bergman, Welles are all equally great.

      I always smile when I see the picture above, the one with the subtitles: “They planned this together. But why?” :) Does the Criterion DVD include the scene where the guest arriving twice, or is it like most of the other cuts? I bought a dvd three years ago and it only had them entering once even though I remember that I saw them arriving twice in version I saw originally, probably a laser disc or video cassette in Film class.

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  5. The last of his three or four films I have seen ( excluding this one )was Simon of the Desert. It seems to show how close ascetism is to hedonism. You have tempted me to re-visit this director.

    Interesting essay, this.

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  6. Glad you’re back, Wael!

    I’ve seen Bunuel’s Belle De Jour and Un Chien Andalou (which was part of an excellent Salvador Dali exhibit in Japan), but not this film. I’m working my way through the Japanese classics right now (well, maybe more like this weekend), but I’m sure I’ll come back to Bunuel at some point, and your post will help me make more sense of it than it sounds like I would on my own.

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    • Thank you? Enjoy the Japanese classics my friend but do make time for Bunuel, I would love to hear your opinion of his work especially “The Exterminating Angel” :)

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  7. It seems to me that this is the one and only film that has attempted to portray Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. Has anyone noticed this slant before?

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  8. I found it a bit of a hard sit, but it’s ideologically very powerful. I take it as a study of how people go from considering a situation completely abnormal to accepting it as the only way possible – i.e. the adapting of a new status quo as time pushes on. I think it’s also significant that the concept of manners (and imposing on a host) is heavy in the opening scenes but pretty much dissolves by the end of the film. Finally, the use of deja vu, as well as the repetition to “break the spell” is puzzling but obviously relevant to the film.

    This is a great analysis. Thanks for the link.

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  9. [...] kokemuksia alle kymmenvuotiaan elokuvavirrassa oli muistettavasti kaksi: eka oli Bunuelin The Exterminating Angel (ei mitään hajua suomenkielisestä nimestä), jossa illallisvierat jumiutuu taloon ilman mitään [...]

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  10. Posted by aditya on January 7, 2012 at 7:58 am

    One, obvious (though somewhat fallacious and simplistic) interpretation would be to view the room as a “world” and the outside as the other-world or the after-world. This allows us to translate the entire film in such terms; lift it bodily and place it in the domain of the strictly real, but as I said, this is a somewhat facile argument. Eternal recurrence is hardly a viable alternative, for that would entail a reiteration of events per se. This fails because there is a way to elude this cycle- death. The death of the lovers and the death of the old man is very real and very visceral, thus such an encompassing interpretation will always fail. Rather than treating the film as a whole, its a better policy to treat it as a “part”, each part/sequence with its own peculiar message.

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  11. Posted by Purple Ink on February 23, 2012 at 1:24 am

    Great post, I saw the film last night for the first time, and I am in complete awe of Mr.Brunel’s work. Your analysis about his work is spot on. Thanks.

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  12. Posted by wayne schrengohst on March 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Eternity, all of eternity, including the mythical eternal life, is a way of experiencing a moment. This is an eternal moment in a salon. We’ve all been there. There is no escape. And eventually everyone acts poorly each in their own way.

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  13. Posted by brian on June 17, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Just watched this for the first time. I’m on a bit of a 60’s art movie kick, My initial interpretation was as an allegory for life/society/existence on the whole.Maybe a bit grand and fanciful of me, but that’s the impression that stuck.

    Any one else think that M Night Shyamalan saw this movie as a young man and never let go of not being able to make literal, rational sense of it? And his entire career has been attempts to re-make this movie, but with an unnecessary “explanation” tacked to the end? Just joking … but still

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  14. The film does it for me without so much analysis. It’s like drinking with a really cynical but hilarious friend – if you’re laughing, you don’t need to extract the meaning of it all.

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  15. Buñuel is a master in using theatrical isolation and hyperbole of details to show how power structures movement and gesture, and shapes affective relations to the objects of senses in the enclosed, often claustrophobic, spaces. He engenders surreal cinematic landscapes out of bourgeois boredom with its unmotivated behaviors, and out of desires distorted by the shadow of the waning religious authority. Every day events shatter fragile egos propelling them to burst into bizarre identities which present fantastic escapes from the political reality.
    By the way, I really enjoyed the essay.

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  16. Awesome. I agree.

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  17. Posted by Kate on May 20, 2013 at 2:13 am

    at the end, what was the fighting scene? was there a particular conflict this was in reference to?

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  21. Posted by Bart Smet on July 15, 2013 at 7:00 am

    For those interested, the script has been published by Green Integer Books (Green Integer 64) available on Amazon for about a tenner.

    Reply

  22. Posted by James on November 8, 2013 at 1:29 am

    Another interesting fact, Marilyn Monroe visited the set of this movie as it was being filmed.

    Reply

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