The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents August 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Julie & Julia
Short Takes
DVD Playback
Fatal Attraction
Lookin to Get Out
True Romance
Exterminating Angel
ASC Close-Up
The Exterminating Angel (1962)

1.33:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Spanish director Luis Buñuel serves up a feast of surrealism with this classic mindbender about a high-society dinner party that devolves into nightmarish purgatory. The director enjoyed complete artistic freedom on the project, and he made the most of it: The Exterminating Angel earned a Palme d’Or nomination at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and provided a memorable showcase for supremely talented Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, whose luminous black-and-white compositions lend Buñuel’s imaginative scenario an eerie atmosphere of existential dread.

Buñuel brings a sharp knife to the table, carving his way through the “civilized” upper class with wit and precision. As the curtain rises, servants in an opulent mansion prepare for a lavish repast that will be laid out when the lord and lady of the house return with friends from an evening on the town. Soon enough, the servants fall victim to vague feelings of unease that cause nearly all of them abandon their posts. When the hosts finally arrive with more than a dozen guests in tow, they are puzzled to find the staff reduced to the head butler and his kitchen minions. Dinner proceeds, but when the group repairs to the salon to enjoy a piano recital, they find themselves strangely unable to leave the room — despite the fact that nothing tangible prevents an exit.

In an insightful Q&A reprinted in a 38-page booklet included in this package, Buñuel compares The Exterminating Angel to Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit, to which it appears to owe at least a superficial debt. “The characters [in my film] don’t leave because they can’t leave, without ever knowing why. In Sartre’s play, they do know: they are dead, and they are in hell. The entire premise is different. My apologies to Sartre, but I think there is more mystery in The Exterminating Angel … or, if you like, simply more irrationality. I also think there is humor in my film.”

Indeed, as the narrative progresses, the characters’ dilemma reaches high peaks of pitch-black absurdity: armoires serve as an outhouse and a tomb for the corpse of a freshly deceased guest; members of the group break through a wall and tap into the plumbing to slake their thirst; and exotic animals kept on hand as potential amusements seem to mock their masters by roaming freely about the premises. (In an amusing aside, Buñuel notes, “It’s interesting to see a bear walking into a drawing room. When we filmed that scene, I was prepared with a .44 Magnum revolver. We closed all the doors. The small salon with the guest in the scene and the camera were all in front of a 5-foot barrier. I told Figueroa, ‘Camera!’ and they let the bear loose. He suddenly felt like climbing a column, and we all ran out, including me. If the bear had jumped over the barrier and really threatened us, I would have shot. But I don’t like to kill animals, so we all ran out.”)

These eccentric elements serve as signposts marking a path toward Buñuel’s thesis, which lampoons his wealthy characters’ lack of humanity and apparent inability to function without servants. In scene after scene, the director deflates his pompous targets as the walls close in on them, mercilessly detailing their regimented social rituals, ossified snobberies and casual contempt for the lower classes, which they cling to like life preservers on the Titanic.

Buñuel’s dramaturgy is consistently amplified by Figueroa’s inventive camerawork, which emphasizes the spatial characteristics of the salon that cages the characters. Funereal curtains create a proscenium-like barrier between the salon and the freedom that lies just out of reach, while clever compositions create an encroaching sense of claustrophobia. Underscoring the trap of his characters’ lifestyle, Buñuel repeats a number of key sequences in a manner that gives the narrative the looping feel of a Möbius strip. “The shot of the guests entering the luxurious Nobile mansion and going up the stairs to the main floor is repeated twice, consecutively, with no variation except that the camera is at a high angle in one take and at a low angle in the other,” he explains. “When I finished the editing, [Figueroa] rushed up to me, very alarmed: ‘Listen, sir, there’s something wrong with the print. A scene is repeated. The editor must have made a mistake.’ I told him, ‘But Gabriel, I always do my own editing. Besides, you were my cinematographer, and you know that when we repeated the scene, we shot it from another angle. I repeated the scene on purpose …’ ‘Ah, now I see,’ he said, but he looked really frightened.”

The duo’s work is reproduced on this DVD with Criterion’s usual care and high standards. Most of the film is free of artifacts, although occasional scratches are visible, and some scenes suffer from subtle image flicker. Figueroa’s masterful chiaroscuro is rendered with excellent contrast and sharpness, and the preservation of film grain enhances the viewing experience without becoming a distraction. Supplements include a theatrical trailer and an excellent, 98-minute documentary made last year, The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel. Structured as a visual scrapbook of postcards that spring to life, the documentary follows screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrier and Buñuel’s son, director Juan Luis Buñuel, as they conduct a tour of the places that fueled the filmmaker’s creativity. Neatly summing up the appeal of not only The Exterminating Angel but also Buñuel’s entire body of work, his son notes, “The nice thing about these movies is that they make the audience work. With lots of movies, you have some popcorn and leave. You leave this one wondering, ‘What was that about? What did those conversations and insults mean?’ It makes you think.”

The film’s epilogue delivers Buñuel’s final philosophical jab, implying that his protagonists have learned little from their imprisonment. In a fate foreshadowed by one character’s promise to attend a “solemn mass” if they survive their ordeal, the group ends up trapped in yet another structure: a church. “At the end of the film, there is no liberation,” Buñuel reflects. “The … incarceration will repeat itself indefinitely. Everyone reverts to the initial situation; they go back to making the same gestures. They have escaped from the incarceration at Nobile’s house only to be held within the church. And the church will be worse because this time, it’s not just 20 people, but 200. It’s like an epidemic that extends outward to infinity.”

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