Monday, January 31, 2011

#459: The Exterminating Angel

(Luis Buñuel, 1962)

Alternately invigorating and frustratingly obtuse, The Exterminating Angel is vintage Buñuel as even I can tell from having seen just a few of his films. After being run out of Spain because of his previous film, Viridiana, Buñuel returned to Mexico to make this surreal satire in which a group of distinguished guests find themselves trapped at a dinner party inexplicably. What follows is nothing less than the breakdown of Western civilization.

The film has high intentions when exploring this concept, most of which are successful. The social dynamic stands in for a crumbling hierarchy which in 1962 was already teetering on the brink of extinction. And the various religious references (the supper, the sheep, the discussion of virgins, etc.) are both expected from Buñuel and unexpectedly coy - you have to love the final moment in which the situation is thrust upon a group of churchgoers and, rather than cause further controversy, Buñuel slyly lets himself out the back door.

But The Exterminating Angel is at its core little more than a joke, a sketch stretched out into feature length which asks the question "What if someone violated the most meaningless and yet seemingly essential rules of social etiquette?" The joke is that the world would simply stop and everyone would be forced to sit in purgatory until they finally got it right and went about their normal ways once more. Buñuel's extension of this joke is satisfying, but no more impressive than any comedy routine that centers around one big idea, no matter how meaningful.

Despite my enjoyment of this core concept - and a large number of highly enjoyable moments in the film - I wasn't entirely invested in The Exterminating Angel because of the rest of the plot, which centered around the lives of the main characters and their interactions as they slowly begin to crumble. I had a difficult time telling anyone in the film apart, which made it hard for me to follow the back-and-forth of who's cheating on whom, which two people were once friends but have since turned on one another, and how these characters were evolving as individuals rather than as a group as the crisis goes on. I would imagine further viewings would illuminate my views on many of these questions, but I'm not sure how eager I am to give the film another go. I could see this movie growing in stature - it's a sort of surreal version of one of my favorite films, The Rules of the Game - but as of this viewing I admire Buñuel's wry touch but remain unmoved by his characters' stories.

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