After Viridiana, Luis Buñuel collaborated with Luis Alcoriza for the first time since Fever Mounts in El Pao. The end result was the wicked, almost unclassifiable The Exterminating Angel, in which members of Mexico City’s bourgeois are invited to a dinner party at a luxe manse and for some unexplained reason find themselves unable to leave by night’s end; an inexplicable force similarly motivates the home’s servants, though they seem perfectly capable of finding the exits. From the start, Buñuel is pointing out all manner of innate and prescribed modes of behavior, offering up this spectacle of human folly for our shocked bemusement.
Buñuel likens the house on Calle de la Providencia to a sunken ship and the story’s elite to helpless prisoners, and as such the droll Exterminating Angel plays out like a perverse disaster flick. Incapable of functioning as rational human beings once the house’s servants have left for the evening, the bourgeois quickly descends into savagery. Though the front door is readily available to them as an exit, they seem unable to access it without being led to it by the help. Hysterical and dying of hunger, they slaughter and cook a herd of sheep inexplicably kept in the house, and though there’s probably plenty of drinking water in the kitchen, they satiate their thirst by breaking through walls to access a network of pipes. Buñuel isn’t just mocking the upper class’s dependency on the lower class, he’s pointing out a nation’s fundamental failure to recognize just how much societal order hinges on the work of the proletariat.
In stripping these loathsome beings of any contact with the lower class and the outside world (which keeps silent and confused watch from outside the manse), Buñuel is able to expose their petty hatreds and fixations. Those who don’t succumb to hysteria surrender to carnal desires they would not have consummated under normal circumstances. “Why don’t you kill me?” one frantic woman wails on her deathbed, and while some resort to eating paper for sustenance, others busy themselves by inventing ways of killing themselves. Buñuel taunts his characters not unlike Chuck Jones terrorizes Daffy in Duck Amuck, and this fascinatingly sadistic relationship between creator and creation is evoked explicitly in devilish bits of dialogue (“This is a bit excessive!”) as well as in the twisted pleasure some of the characters derive from their helplessness. “I adore things which go out of the ordinary,” a woman says before things really start going awry.
Buñuel understands how the symbiotic relationship between the rich and poor works to dehumanize one group while concealing the flaws of another, treating the elite’s political apathy and flair for convenience as proof of their fundamental lack of convictions. And what would a Buñuel film be without religious provocation? The rich dolts arrive at the house after having watched a play about a naïve virgin (who Buñuel symbolically transplants into the house as Silvia Pinal’s bound-to-be-deflowered Valkyrie), and just as they realize the extent of their powerlessness, they predictably seek solace in religion, which Buñuel always considered a sham. Even after they’ve managed to lead themselves out of the house, Buñuel imprisons them once again, only this time inside a Catholic church after morning service, giving them what he feels is the only thing they deserve.