SOS Staff Gateway Films: Neal Dhand – ‘The Exterminating Angel’

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Throughout November, SOS staffers will be discussing the movies that made them into film fanatics.

(click here for the full list)

Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel begins with a shot of the exterior of a church. Organ music plays as the credits roll. Three shots follow: a shot of a sign indicating “Providence Street,” a wide-shot of the street itself, and a shot that dollies into a medium wide-shot as servant and house-owner converse. The servant wants to leave. The house-owner, dressed to the nines, says that dinner is about to start and that if the servant leaves he shouldn’t come back. He leaves anyway.

This opening is emblematic of Buñuel’s style, serves as foreshadowing, and is one of the many reasons why The Exterminating Angel is the film that pushed me into cinematic obsession. Buñuel’s camera is mobile. It’s frequently wide and in deep focus. His edits dispense of unnecessary exposition (as here) and move swiftly through to the heart of the narrative. What about that shot of the church? It doesn’t come back until the final five minutes of the film. Why does the servant leave? That’s really up the viewer. Does Providence Street mean anything? It depends on if you take Buñuel with tongue in cheek or literally. Buñuel is the rare filmmaker who can feel enigmatic and unpretentious, symbolic and light-hearted, and assured and chaotic all at once.

It’s not that, when I first saw The Exterminating Angel, I hadn’t seen a Buñuel film, an oddly structured film or a film that seemed to say so much more than it actually said before, it’s rather that I hadn’t seen a film that seemed to take so much pleasure in breaking the rules and laying bare the animalistic tendencies of its subjects.

From the early repetition of the servants leaving the house, through the symbolic (or nonsensical, I think both are valid interpretations) appearances of animals, to the ending eye towards further repetition and a new target (the church, alongside the bourgeoisie), The Exterminating Angel basically said to me, ‘yeah, you can do this,’ in a way that maybe the infamous Buñuel/Dali collaboration, Un Chien Andalou, did to others.

Released in 1962, the film, alongside Viridiana from a year earlier, marked a new period of Buñuelian creativity, and a remarkable run of sardonic masterpieces that would continue up until his final film, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire.

I saw The Rules of the Game in The Exterminating Angel, and sure Buñuel’s film took on the world of upper and lower class differences in a similarly microcosmic, mansion setting, but what struck me about the latter more so then Renoir’s film was the maniacal sense of absurdity. When you watch a bunch of people in suits and dresses claw through a wall and into a water pipe you know you’re beyond any subtle class-conflict narrative and into something wholly new.

If you’re familiar with the film you’ll know that the whole premise stems from a simple, but ridiculous concept: at the end of a dinner party a group of guests are unable to cross the threshold of a room. There’s no physical barrier or explanation, but it’s taken as fact. The willingness to put forth an illogical idea and go with it was and still is refreshing. If we say Superman can fly because he’s from Krypton then he can fly. If Buñuel says that a group of monocle-wearing suits can’t walk through a doorway because they can’t then they can’t.

There’s an odd sense of time that runs through The Exterminating Angel. Does the action take place in a few hours? Overnight? A week? A month? It doesn’t really seem to matter. I was introduced to this film around the same time I first saw Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, so time expanding, compressing and standing still seemed the theme of the month. Buñuel’s film is as unconcerned with temporal cohesion and firm linearity as it is with plot contrivances and untenable explanations. Here’s a film that wants to say something, but says it by ignoring basic screenwriting tenets and caring little for rationality. The ending, where the lone virgin in the room is proved to be the heroine and escape is found by rearranging everything to its original position leaves itself open to multiple societal and religious interpretations but pushes none.

When I saw Cube years later I laughed out loud when the solution to escape stole directly from Buñuel, though the vagaries of that film felt more predicated on its overarching sense of unpredictable violence than on any attempt to subvert cinema or even take a people to task.

It’s true that Buñuel is often mentioned in the same breath as some of the all-time great directors, but I feel like too often that same breath mentions only his surrealist affiliation and affinity for satire. Some of the best blocking I’ve seen comes from Buñuel’s films. A simple walk-and-talk in Viridiana or movement around furniture in The Exterminating Angel, for example, is frequently kinetic and smooth, but without calling attention to itself.

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Consider a scene in The Exterminating Angel (seen above). As the guests turn the lights out and settle in, Buñuel rapidly moves between various factions of the party. As one guest takes off his jacket (to which two characters remark, “Isn’t that a bit excessive?” and then, not to make him feel comfortable but so that later when he “thinks back on [his] conduct [he’ll] feel ashamed,” they too remove their formal-ware) the camera dollies forward, composing the commentators in the foreground and the object of their discussion in the background. Buñuel then cuts into the character in the background and uses his actions as platform to set up another couple observing.

This technique allows him to fluidly stage multiple characters, observe their separateness, and alternately make the room feel large and small. The director’s sharp feel for actors, and later his sharp feel for colors both also served him well throughout his career.

I’ve never read the script for The Exterminating Angel but I recently read Buñuel’s screenplay for his 1967 film Belle du Jour. It’s remarkable how precise everything is. It’s a shooting script of sorts, but everything, from the sound to the specific camera movement is included in more detail than the average. It shouldn’t have surprised me. The harsh scraping of hands digging into walls walls, the echoing hallways, the trotting of a sheep towards the distance voices in a church – all of these sounds layer The Exterminating Angel in a way that makes its view of spaces, whether open, closed, inside, or outside, an integral part of the narrative. And everything feels so controlled as though already directed before the camera rolls.

Something about the labyrinthine house and structure and the impenetrability of motivations – the lack of character back-story, for one – make The Exterminating Angel age quite well. It’s the rare film that looks temptingly like a puzzle to be solved but then at the end doesn’t ask to be. As two characters comment, as though commenting on the film itself, “it’s amusing and strange.”

– Neal Dhand

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