Strother Purdy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

[A] careful look at Exterminating Angel reveals it … as Bunuel's best film, perhaps, and as a film almost alone in a mode that might be called existential surrealism.

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Ever since Chien Andalou Bunuel has been expected to put oddly or outrageously juxtaposed images in his films, and not necessarily to have anything in mind beyond an urge to shock, or to express senseless violence, while doing it…. In Exterminating Angel, on the other hand, the events are generally impossible outside of dreams (truly surreal), but there should be no more presumption that they are therefore meaningless than there should be concerning the events in Viridiana, or that events in dreams are meaningless. (p. 29)

[Bunuel put something surreal into his films] because he meant something by it. All the more did he mean something by the central situation and its outcome.

This central situation—the visit of the Exterminating Angel and the pathetic deliverance of his victims—is basically an allegory, just as Viridiana and Chien Andalou are allegories. Only its greater complexity makes it harder to comprehend than Viridiana, for it is both holding the Christian world-allegory up to ridicule, and reworking its terms to present another view, that is existential. It is first the medieval Dance of Death, of which modern examples are Poe's The Masque of the Red Death and Bergman's Seventh Seal—once Death has appeared, the guests are to die one by one…. Death is thus the subject of the film, but several other elements are added, elements that carry it far from Christian allegory. (pp. 30-1)

First is the shipwreck theme, the stranding of a group of characters without food or water, and recording with sardonic relish their interactions in the increasingly desperate fight for survival—these including the erosion of courtesy, male deference to female, social disguises of weakness, aggression, and cruelty—so The Admirable Crichton, The Lifeboat, The Lord of the Flies, and so forth….

[Bunuel twists the shipwreck theme here:] the shipwrecked aren't shipwrecked—they are cast away in a drawing room, like the damned in Sartre's No Exit, and the doorways to the rest of the house and the city beyond stand open. This is both comic and sinister—what is the force that holds them trapped? (p. 31)

[At the point where the naufragos are rescued] where a shallower film, like Lord of the Flies, might end, Bunuel is preparing another blow, a final comic absurdity that brings a larger disorientation. When the rescued ones [attend] a solemn high Mass of thanks at the cathedral, they are trapped again! (p. 32)

[What] do the metaphors of surreal time and a plague in the city do to explain the mystery of the invisible barrier—the fatal trap that has no physical existence? Death may come to the city like a plague or a falling out of time, but those who actually die in the film do so neither from infectious disease nor from starvation. Their predicament is not one visited upon them by a supernatural power, but lies within their own natures. It is the existential predicament of loss of will. The open doorway is not blocked by an invisible agency—the sheep trot through it with the same ease the child walks through the gate—but by the individual's incapacity to persist in a determination to pass through. It is a small act, an absurd one to be denied, or to find oneself unable to perform. It is an act we perform without thought, just as we live without thought. If we don't live we die, and the doorway they can't breach brings the guests face to face with death, the Exterminating Angel. Like the Sartrean nausée, lack of will is a malaise that can affect a civilization as well as an individual, and be likened to a plague in its spread. (pp. 32-3)

Bunuel, like Eisenstein, employs his most sardonic visual metaphors to mock the church: the doors along one side of the room bear paintings of angels, yet behind them lie death and corruption. One door conceals the lovers' passion and then their suicide, a second the body of the heart attack victim, a third the vases that receive the natural wastes—and as a final touch, several of the ladies have visions as they defecate there….

Exterminating Angel is a film that tries to remind us of the hollowness of our defences against the unexpected, and that the social inventions we employ to lend meaning to life and scare away death are absurd, games like those of the fun-loving hostess. And Exterminating Angel tries to indicate, if only negatively, that there is a better way to live. (p. 34)

Strother Purdy, "Existential Surrealism: The Neglected Example of Bunuel's 'The Exterminating Angel'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1968 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1968, pp. 28-34.

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