Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) is a grim comedy–a view of human nature that suggests we harbor savage instincts and unspeakable secrets. Take a group of prosperous dinner guests and pen them up long enough, he suggests, and they’ll turn on one another like rats.
An aristocrat appropriately named Nobilé has invited several society friends to his home after the opera. Buñuel begins with small, alarming prophecies. The cook and the servants suddenly escape, just as the guests are arriving. The hostess is furious–she planned an after-dinner entertainment involving a bear and two sheep. Now it will have to be canceled.
These surrealistic touches are dropped in without comment. The dinner party is a success. The guests whisper slanders about each other, their eyes playing across the faces of their fellow guests with greed, lust and envy.
They migrate to an adjoining parlor to continue with their empty conversation. Two men focus their attention on a beautiful girl, rumored to be a virgin. Several familiar guests, including two lovers engaged to be married go through the pretense of introducing themselves to each other. A terminally ill pianist, passionately kisses her attending physician, and the doctor reveals to the other guests that she will soon grow bald. A pregnant woman casually alludes to the questionable paternity of her baby in front of her equally dispassionate husband.
My kind of party.
The hours pass. The people yawn and stretch out in exhaustion, yet no one leaves. And so the unusual charade continues, as the guests make their way towards the open hallway of the entrance, hesitate, and find a reason or excuse to stay. Despite their mutual realization that they have clearly overstayed their welcome, no one wants to bear the distinction of being the first person to leave the dinner party. The veneer of civility erodes as desperation and distrust set in, and inevitably, the guests turn against their accommodating host, blaming him for their absurd, self-induced captivity.
While attempting to break down the emotions of the guests in the days that ensued (imagine stuck in that room and running out of wine), I notice any perception of a positive emotion previously shown by the guests, Buñuel turns on its side to a negative: Humor, success, excitement, desire, pleasure, promise, abundance, intelligence, innocence.
The Exterminating Angel is a visually stunning, richly symbolic, and subtly allegorical tale on the nature of human behavior. Through a claustrophobic examination of masters without servants, Buñuel strips the facade of all social pretense and exposes the fundamentally base, instinctual, and primal behavior innate in the human soul.
What separates man from beast? According to Buñuel, the answer perhaps lies in the freedom of the animals (and the children).