After an upper class dinner, the hosts and guests all adjourn to the parlour for after-dinner drinks and discussions. When the hour becomes late, the guests all decide to stay instead of heading home, sleeping on chairs and the floor instead of to some of the numerous bedrooms. Come the morning, still none of them leave, and they soon begin to wonder if perhaps there is some unseen force keeping them retained within the room.
A few months ago Facebook saw a minor trend of making lists based on the idea of one’s 101 Favourite Films, quickly followed by 20 Favourite Directors. Had the lists continued down a more negative path to look at, say, my 5 Least Favourite Directors, then I can say with absolute certainty that Luis Buñuel would have appeared on my list, probably very close to the top. I do not like his films. At best they are bizarre oddities whose only compliments arrive in the form of a strange sense of humour that will very occasionally match up with my own, but more often than not they are ridiculous and nonsensical wastes of my time. I realised this early on in my blogging quest through the 1001 List, at which point I lined all of his remaining films up and knocked them out over the course of a long weekend. Alas, a few years ago the 1001 List underwent a significant upheaval, during which The Exterminating Angel reared its unwelcome head. This was the first Buñuel film I saw, 8 years ago, and it was not one I’d had much desire to revisit, but fate pressed my hand and I re-delved unwillingly. I’ll be going into spoilers for this film, so if you want to watch it (don’t) then stop reading now.
My issue is the lack of explanation. No reason is ever given for why the guests all find themselves unable to leave the room. There is no physical barrier preventing their exit. They each walk up to the open doorway that leads to the hall and beyond, but all turn back citing various reasons or an unknown malady. Similarly, concerned friends, family members and staff group at the mansion’s gates, unable to enter with no explanation. Worse still is how the situation resolves itself. After several days, maybe even weeks in captivity, after the food has run out and they have resorted to beating at the plumbing to provide a source of water, one guest somehow arrives at the realisation that everyone in attendance is in exactly the same position as they were the night they got stuck there. The pianist, who had played a song that night, plays the same song, and the guests attempt to recreate their responses to her. Miraculously – no, wait, fucking ridiculously, this works, and they are all free to go about their lives. My problem here, and they are many, but I’ll stick to the one, is that in the intervening time between them getting stuck and this all-in-the-same-place-bullshit, at least three people have died. An old man passed early on, and a couple killed themselves in a cupboard when they could take it no longer. (At times I envied these two.) These three folk were most definitely not in the same place they were that first night. Similarly, the woman who makes the realisation that they are in the same place and should all act the same way moves throughout the scene directing and prompting everyone’s responses, in a manner that she absolutely did not do on the first night. Like I said, it’s all a load of tosh and nonsense. Or bollocks, if you prefer.
Incredulity aside, this isn’t a film that dwells on subtlety. The main theme here is depicting the rich and aristocratic upper class as being nothing more than animals and beggars when the need arises, so of course they must be depicted with the utmost nobility possible. Hence why the hosts are the Nobiles, who live on Providence Street. Jeez. There are also just too many guests. It helps to emphasise the direness of the situation, but the story tries to give them all something to do and a different character for each, but that makes for far too much to keep hold of, and everyone began to blur together pretty quickly.
So my main problem was the ridiculous nature of the plot and the manner by which it was resolved. I feel that the same degree of social devolution could have been achieved via a plot that didn’t resort to inexplicable supernatural elements, but perhaps Buñuel lacked the ability to craft such a story. Then again, maybe he was just a crazy fool who should have been kept far, far away from anything even closely resembling a camera. And yes, that’s a picture of a sheep. They roam around the house, along with a baby bear. I have no explanation for you, and neither does Buñuel.
Choose Life 4/10