Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Exterminating Angel (1962): Rich and Poor Reversed

The Exterminating Angel is one of Bunuel’s most delicious pranks. A group of maybe 15 or 20 high-class people assemble in a mansion for a dinner-party. They get through the meal, but when it comes time to go home, they can’t seem to leave. And no-one knows why. The authorities outside know that the people inside are trapped and after several days are low on food and water, but for their part they can’t seem to enter. And they don’t know why either. We don’t get any sci-fi ‘force-field’ nonsense. It’s just a feeling people have. They walk as far as the thresholds and then give up, perplexed, and in a strange way saddened. Perhaps it’s because they realise that they’re not as free as they once thought.

I saw the film a long time ago and just appreciated it for the strangeness of the set-up, the comical aspects. It really makes you chuckle. I also recently saw Bunuel’s 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty and though that film is in a way more accessible (it’s in colour, it’s brighter and nicer to look at), it’s also too episodic - almost like a series of sketches. The Exterminating Angel is really the better film. It starts off with this one insane premise and just sits back and watches as chaos ensues.

And on recent re-viewing it occurred to me that Bunuel may also have smuggled a deeper point into The Exterminating Angel - about class and the way society works. It was made in Mexico, where earlier he had made one of the all-time classics about poverty: Los Olvidados (1950). And his 1933 film in Spain Land without Bread also suggests that this subject was close to his heart. Although throughout the film we’re focused on this group of rich people, really we should be thinking of them as representing poor people, anywhere anytime - the really poor ones who live in slums. Because if you do that nearly everything they do makes sense and does not seem so surreal.

Think about it. A few days after this strange ‘house arrest’ has started, this is the kind of world the guests are living in: people are constantly hot and uncomfortable and they’ve let standards of appearance and propriety drop. They’re lethargic and unable to think of solutions to their problems. They are vandalizing property so as to get water with which to live. There are dead bodies kept nearby making a stink. The room they’re trapped in looks like a garbage-heap, and when a group of lambs wanders in and are pounced on for food, the guests seem like wild animals. They then cook the meat and fill the room up with acrid smoke. People get superstitious and start believing in signs and performing strange rituals. They laugh for no reason, like mad people, and long for the children they’ve been forcibly separated from. They’ve lost all their magnanimity and are telling each other ‘You stink like a hyena’. They erupt into shows of anger over petty matters. They sabotage their own existence as well as that of the people around them. They are cruel to each other even when it doesn’t gain them anything, like the guy who throws away the pills vitally needed by one of his fellow guests. Generalised ennui and dissatisfaction with the world has taken over completely.

Isn’t that all a kind of picture of the worst that poverty can bring? By defamiliarising what is the reality of poverty for billions in underdeveloped countries, then and now, and cramming it all into one little over-crowded room, the film lets us consider that reality in a new way. We have to consider our own antipathy toward the poor. They - like the guests - don’t make for an attractive picture. We don’t want to be like them, and we don’t much want to hang around to help them either. At the start of the film we see the servants in the house making up lame excuses so as to get away as fast as possible. It’s all rather strange and they don’t seem to know themselves why they’re compelled to leave. Later they’re described as being like ‘rats abandoning a sinking ship’. But since in this film all roles are reversed, and the rich are playing the poor, these poor servants should be looked on as representing the rich in real life. Isn’t ‘abandoning a sinking ship’ what the rich - or the middle-class - do all the time if they find themselves living in or even just visiting a poor neighborhood? Don’t they scarper in the same way?

And finally couldn’t the whole set-up of the film be taken as a metaphor for the mental shackles the poor live with. There’s nothing physically stopping them leaving their slums, but for some reason they don’t, they stay where they are, snarling angrily at each other just like the guests in the movie. Bunuel of course was not much of a fan of the Catholic church, and the final few shots of the movie suggests that even if people do manage to throw off the shackles of poverty and get away to a better place, they’ll be one more mental prison to break out of: that of religion.

To see 53 Screenshots from the movie, click here

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