A little switch-up, if you will, because I couldn’t watch a 1961 Cannes film at pace, but will get to it soon enough. So 1961 and 1962 have been flipped, after which the order shall return to normal…
Luis Buñuel’s triumphant return to Spain after many years working in Mexico was short-lived but unequivocally rabble-rousing. The lone film he produced was as provocative a film as the world has ever seen. 1961’s Viridiana won the Palme d’Or, was rapturously received by critics, and revolted the Spanish government right from under their noses. The production was, charitably, pure havoc, subject to rigorous and ruthless censorship, and produced with the help of tricks and masquerades on Bu>ñuel’s behalf. It is one of the quintessential works of world cinema, by all means, but it came with a toll. Jagged knives aimed at the Spanish government, it seems, couldn’t but get a little blood on Buñuel’s face.
For his next film, Spain wasn’t exactly welcome country, and Buñuel’s ceremonious return to Spain was matched by his immediately out-the-door ceremonious return to Mexico again. He made sure he showed his pride to be away from a nation he no longer supported by matching his Spanish Viridiana with his first return-to-Mexico film, The Exterminating Angel. This film, released in 1962, is every bit Viridiana’s equal, and it shows the director wasn’t exclusively haunted by Spain. Buñuel made no qualms about his Marxism, and for anyone who thought Spain was his only port of interest, The Exterminating Angel is a bold reminder that Buñuel means surrealist, oddly angled knives jabbed straight into the heart of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie in any nation, and in all nations.
Buñuel also means avant-garde cinema at its finest, and a gloriously off-kilter excuse for minimizing production costs, turning minimalism into not only a distraction or a challenge but a proudly trumpeted buttress to his themes of choice. For Buñuel did not greet age as an excuse for wither and compassion. No, this is one director who only grew angrier when his hair greyed. He had not, to him, completed his mission in life, and he wasn’t about to let the slowing of his bones take his brain with him. Despite its minimalism, or because of it, The Exterminating Angel is cinema fired from the hip, a shard of cinematic discontent that is all the more disconcerting because of how reconciliatory and fluffy it initially seems from the exterior.
The Exterminating Angel is the story, or episode more likely, of a group of wealthy dinner guests who, upon arriving and arriving again in a self-consciously oestentatious show of flair, find themselves inexplicably unable to remove themselves from the room they recline in after dinner. Not for any particular reason mind you; they never fully reconcile with their inability to move themselves, but they simply cannot leave the room. The reason is unimportant for precisely the same reason it is so elemental: they are trapped by their own human distance and inability to relate to or debate with the outside world. They live their lives in the studies and at the dinner tables of the world’s mansions, so why not trap them there? They’re home anyway, and Buñuel sees to it that they shall remain where they are most comfortable.
The ensuing affair is macabre, precisely because the film seems so arbitrary. A group of guests revel in their introductions, with Buñuel show-piecing the arrival from multiple different angles to suit their egos, and they dine like an international committee dedicated to treatying up the end of a war. They lecherously stare with envy and disgust, but they don’t state anything. It isn’t their way. Dignified and dishonest, they regale themselves with their own refinement until it keeps them from displaying an ounce of genuine human emotion, until it becomes a sort of cage. The literal manifestation of this cage, the room that is the subject of Buñuel’s film, is simply the director giving his characters the pleasure of making their self-imposed prison an external creature, and not the internal beast they’ve known throughout their lives. They’ve always been cornered off into their exclusionary houses and rooms in their minds anyway; they merely can’t hide it anymore.
Buñuel’s film isn’t all concept though; for all that it is a masterpiece of thought and concept, it is also a masterpiece of craft. Buñuel’s opening gesture, where he gives the characters the red-carpet entrance they dream of, is but one exercise in the morbid grandiosity of the guests and their containing facility. Buñuel contrasts the plainness of the kitchen and the backstage of the house with the oppressive opulence of the on-stage dinner party itself, and he pans around the guests at dinner to reveal them as a predatory murderers’ row of competing interests and personal fixations not so much addressing each other as existing around each other.
Once the crew confines themselves to after-dinner drinks, Buñuel’s direction slips from stately (how the guests might prefer it) to unhinged and deranged (the true carnal, carnivorous cores of the guests, but the cores they don’t reveal until they’ve been locked in a metaphorical closet with each other). He begins with a showpiece for open spaces, with rooms often filmed with other rooms, harbingers of escape and safety, in the background. As the guests confront their trapped reality, the director moves to focusing on the walls and the limits of the room they find themselves in, confining the characters in intimate traps without the benefit of other rooms seen in the distance (when other rooms do appear, they as carefully modulated exceptions to the norm).
The room becomes the world of the guests; it is as though they can’t even understand that other rooms might exist, just as they can’t even understand how other worlds besides theirs might exist. Adjoining locations become tempting off-screen space, and off-screen space was never as diabolical and tempting as in The Exterminating Angel. Buñuel’s genius is the genius of few directors: if you desire to make a scathing, politically radical critique, please remember to follow it with a cinematically radical one as well. Don’t use the master’s tools, the tools of conventional bourgeois cinema, to destroy the master’s house, to quote Audre Lorde. Buñuel creates his own filmic language, his own filmic tools, to destroy the master’s house.
Surely, the entombed elite are a reflection of Franco’s goons reclining (hiding) in Spain, but the implication is more elemental. The Exterminating Angel is primarily a fable about the elite as an international concept, and although Buñuel’s punching-bag elite of choice was always the Spanish elite, the film exists beyond them. It is a theme Buñuel never could escape from (his final masterpiece, 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is an inversion and reflection of The Exterminating Angel, with the group of dinner guests always able to arrive and leave, but never able to actually start their dinner for some reason, so they reside to keep meeting until they do, torn apart by their commitment to the public pageantry of their lifestyle). The genius of The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is how cruel they are in their lack of explanation; explanation allows us to rationalize, to afford us the comfort of knowing if one thing were altered, or one other solution tried, everything would be all right. Rationality allows us to find a way out. Buñuel was not interested in rationality; he was interested in arbitrariness, and he was dedicated to unapologetically feeding arbitrary developments to his rational beings to disjoint their world without forgiveness.
To imbibe in a cliché, he was a quintessential director, exercising dogmatic authorial control and throwing wrenches in his films simply because he wanted to. The only difference with Buñuel is that he clues us in. He is honest about it. He announces the constructed world of his film. He announces his authorship, and he doesn’t excuse it. Then, and only then, does he daunt us with the realization that his seemingly lunatic anti-rationalism is a violent revolt against a rational world, as well as a reflection of how truly arbitrary the world often is.