The Exterminating Angel

El Angel Exterminador, 1962, Spanish/Mexico

“In Woody Allen’s 2011 comedy Midnight in Paris, an American screenwriter named Gil is magically transported back to the 1920s, where he meets the glittering artistic figures resident in Paris at the time. Among them is the Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Gil decides to pitch him an idea for a film that Buñuel would not get round to making for decades. It’s about a group of socialites who attend a dinner, then find themselves mysteriously unable to leave. Buñuel frowns. ‘But I don’t get it. Why don’t they just walk out of the room?’ It’s the best joke in Allen’s movie: a tribute to a surrealist classic so radically perplexing that even its own creator can’t fathom it.”

- Jonathan Romney, the Guardian review of

   Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel

Luis Buñuel (1900-83) was, as the title of a Juan Goytisolo novel has it, exiled from almost everywhere. He was born in a small village in Spain, and would live in Paris in the 1920s, Hollywood in the ‘30s, and Mexico in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He started out in the Surrealist movement – his first and best-known film, An Andalusian Dog (1929), was co-directed by Salvador Dali – and, in a career move no one would consider seriously today, did his best work after he turned 60.

In 1960, Buñuel was fresh off the success of Viridiana, the first of his three collaborations with actress Silvia Pinal (who had played the lead) and her husband, the producer Gustavo Alatriste. Viridiana was Buñuel’s first film in Spain after a half a lifetime of exile; it was Spain’s official entry for the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Palme d’Or, but was almost immediately condemned by the Vatican for sacrilege (one its sequences mocked the Last Supper) and banned in Spain. The film’s (and Buñuel’s) nationality had to be changed from Spanish to Mexican for distribution, and Buñuel poured his anger and desire for freedom into The Exterminating Angel, “a film about domestic entrapment made by a man exiled from his own home.” It was the first time in eighteen years he had complete artistic control.

Enrique Rambal and Luis Buñuel (and a sheep) on the set of The Exterminating Angel

Though he did not know it yet, The Exterminating Angel would be the first film of Buñuel’s most creative phase, and its influence is felt in everything he went on to do. He returned to Paris in the ‘60s and became part of the nouvelle vague, making Belle de Jour (1967), Tristana (1970), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), his last film. His one regret was that he didn’t make Angel in Europe: if it was shot in Paris, it would have featured cannibalism.

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.