Friday, December 23, 2005

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962) -
Luis Bunuel

Though I haven’t seen Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in years, I think I now have to go with Exterminating Angel as my favorite of Bunuel’s two f'ed up dinner party movies. I remember the signature images of Bourgeoisie (a rich couple coupling among the bushes, the dinner party group walking through a field then arriving on stage), but as a whole the movie hasn’t stuck with me. On the other hand, I think Angel’s sustained absurdity and dreamlike sense of dread are going to stick with me as a mood I can quickly recall whenever the film is mentioned.

The Exterminating Angel plays like a horror movie, but a very polite one. No guts, no gore, no supernatural beasts (unless you count the lambs and the bear that show up at the end). The unseen enemy here seems to be social convention itself, played as an unseen force which keeps a group of high society dinner party guests trapped within one room long after the party should have been over.

At first, the group of gathered guests seem to stay out of mere politeness, waiting for others to leave before they can do so. But then as the night wears into the early morning and people in tuxedos and ball gowns begin reluctantly stretching out on the floor of one room to get some sleep, we realize something else is at work. In the morning after breakfast is served, the group begins to question, in separate packs, why no one has left the party -- after all, it is exceedingly odd for guests of such a high order to "sleepover."

Pretty soon, the group realizes that something is afoul when the party’s host tries to leave toward the kitchen and finds himself unable to go over the threshold, not by some unseen CGI force, but by a weakness of will. This means that the butler can’t leave either to bring back food or water or other servants, who have left in a hurried rush the night before sensing something amiss.

Slowly but surely, the group descends into anarchy. It’s the Lord of the Flies but locked into a very posh parlor room. Bunuel could have kept the story locked inside for claustrophobic effect but takes a daring risk by cutting to the exterior of the estate where a group of police and townspeople have turned up only to find that they themselves cannot cross the threshold into the mansion. It has become the ultimate in exclusive parties -- one where you can’t get in or out. And who better to play unseen bouncer than Bunuel, once again up to his playfully cruel tricks.

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