2016 Film Essays

The Exquisite Surreality of Luis Buñuel’s ‘The Exterminating Angel’


A comically surreal masterpiece, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel proves an enduring and lighthearted experience, time after time, each viewing influenced by the last, and each new symbolic theory dashed moment by moment. Thrusting his unwitting audience into a world of his own making (despite my many experiences with the film, I cannot help but feel ill-informed upon each revisit), Buñuel casts logic aside and forges a path deep into his own psyche, turning over stones and uncovering avenues of thought in a dreamlike chase for the delightfully bizarre. Frequenters to this world of make believe know that explanation is far beyond reach, and to poke at any concrete conclusions would be an exercise in futility — yet pilgrims into these Buñuelian fantasies cannot help but shake the feeling that his films explore the deepest recesses of the human experience, exposing us for the animals we truly are.


Buñuel would have a great deal of trouble selling The Exterminating Angel to any levelheaded studio in operation today. In a cinematic landscape that likes its mysteries thinly-veiled and audience friendly, the tale of a group of bourgeoisie dinner guests that become inexplicably trapped in an unlocked — and, for all intents and purposes, wide open — room would likely confuse and anger average viewers in search of tidy resolutions. Discussions of film rarely happen in 2016 without “spoiler alerts” or vague gropings at narrative, but there is nothing that will ever prepare someone for Buñuel’s film; even a previous viewing does little to spoil the secrecy. It is from behind this shroud of abstractness that The Exterminating Angel gains its lasting legacy and thrives with a seemingly effortless immortality. There are infinite ways to interpret the film and its many paths of exploration, so it can live on with a revitalized sense of relevance even after decades of use.


Given time to marinate, the big picture of Buñuel’s film fades, allowing the minutiae of his bizarre universe to reveal themselves little by little. Random inclusions of cool anti-Semitism (after a window in the lavish mansion is shattered, a guest frankly quips, “ Some Jew passing by”) blend with deliberate errors in filmmaking (a boom mic proudly protruding from under a table) to create the atmosphere of a gracefully crafted dream in which nothing is real, but for the dreamer (viewer) trapped inside, everything has consequences. Buñuel is a master at using these details to at once subvert and support his more bold visual metaphor. Each revelatory moment of discovery or an inkling of interpretation can be both dashed and elevated by the director’s ethereal camera. The sheep that inexplicably inhabit the mansion can be seen to represent the trapped gentry yet swiftly become food to sustain them. This under-appreciated gift from the God that has apparently abandoned them becomes what is perhaps just a means to prolong their torment.


Inserting and perverting at random, Buñuel undoubtedly delights in confusing and astounding his unsuspecting audience. His love of surprise and disgust are equally apparent — The Exterminating Angel shows a range of immorality and deviance that suits all seasons. His wonton disregard for the invisible line of morality serves as an inspiring testament to originality. The bounds of “acceptability” simply do not exist inside Buñuel’s cinematic landscape; his only limit: a chimerical imagination that strives to push any willing participant down a black hole of twisted fantasy.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.