So begins the waiting game of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). The guests are being punished for their wicked lifestyle, and are only trapped after the servants—save a butler (“A bourgeois at heart,” Buñuel once explained), who enters the drawing room and finds that he cannot leave, either—spare themselves by exiting the house.
The hours turn into days and the days into weeks, and soon everything and everyone starts to deteriorate as they wait for the invisible wall to crumble, someone to rescue them, or their death. Two lovers kill themselves. For water, the guests take an antique axe to the pipes. For food, some eat paper, while others roast the bear and sheep—kept aside earlier by “the help” for entertainment—that come upon the room. Buñuel generously gives his characters a competence and cooperation they are probably incapable of. They, as one compares the group early in the film, are rats in a sinking ship.
Or just rats. Take the moment early on when the butler trips in front of the guests, spilling hors d’oeuvres on the floor. Most laugh because such an incident could never happen to them. But some don’t because they’re too hungry to.
Buñuel films are always a joy to pick apart the imagery, though half the time it either means nothing at all, or not what we want it to—Buñuel has brushed off viewers likening one character to Christ, and the bear to “the Soviet threat.”
“Everything was arbitrary. I only tried to evoke some sort of disturbing image,” he said. That explains the hand that crawls across the floor, chicken claws in one guest’s purse, and maybe why the guests enter the house twice (Buñuel coyly played this one off when he countered actress Silvia Pinal’s doubts with: “Haven’t you ever had a breakfast twice or bathed twice in one day?”). Touché.
And the rest? What does it all mean? One interpretation (mine) is that the name of the road the manor sits on—Providence—is no coincidence. For all we know, the parallel road is called Hell’s Highway. The drawing room is the guests’ own personal purgatory for their sinful lifestyle.
It seems a fitting explanation for Buñuel’s film as he, throughout his career, was mercifully critical of both bourgeois mores and religious attitudes. But he was also a surrealist, and so there is no explanation or reason that could satisfy the masses. Nor should there be.
It’s like the old joke: How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Fish.
The Last Script: Remember Luis Buñuel (1:36:58): In this terrific 2008 feature-length documentary, Buñuel’s son Juan and screenwriter/collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière discuss the life and work of the late Spanish filmmaker with others, using significant locations and countries—Spain, France, Mexico, USA—in Buñuel’s life as the backdrop. A very in-depth and personal look into the legend.
Interviews: Actress Silvia Pinal (10:14) and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein (14:49) share their memories of Luis Buñuel in these interviews recorded in 2006. Pinal discusses the director’s childish antics, making The Exterminating Angel (one of three films she did with Buñuel), and the film’s meaning. Ripstein remembers his idol, who he observed on the set, as the one responsible for his becoming a filmmaker.
Also included is a 36-page booklet with an essay titled “Exterminating Civilization” by film scholar and USC professor Marsha Kinder and an interview with Buñuel conducted by “film critics” and “confidants.”