The Exterminating Angel

El Angel Exterminador, 1962, Spanish/Mexico

“If the film you are going to see strikes you as enigmatic or incongruous, life is that way too. Perhaps the best explanation for The Exterminating Angel is that, ‘reasonably, there isn’t one.’”

- Buñuel, in the title card of The Exterminating Angel

In his memoirs, Buñuel considers his “discovery of Freud, and particularly his theory of the unconscious [...] crucial”. The servants in Angel give spurious reasons for leaving; the guests give equally spurious reasons for staying. The former have a job on the line; the latter give up luxuries that inform their self-image. The bear and sheep move about freely because they have no character in the human sense, despite the fact that there isn’t much difference between them and the guests anymore (as Roger Ebert succinctly puts it, “so close to civilization is the cave.”)

The guests’ bestial behavior is a clear example of regression (only Julio regresses into behavior that is not inhuman but infantile: he eats paper). However, the psychoanalytic concept that drives the film is repetition: “Like any good surrealist, Buñuel represents the psychological fact in physical terms. Being one’s repetitive self is like being boxed in. You are in a cage, the cage of your character—or, in this film, a drawing-room you can’t get out of.”

Buñuel claimed there were around twenty repetitions in the film, some more noticeable than others: the guests entering the house (in two slightly different camera angles), Edmundo toasting Leticia, and the entire Paradisi sequence that ushers the guests into and out of the nightmare. Entering the house twice is a joke whose punchline is that “[t]he guests, having so thoroughly arrived, are incapable of leaving… Take a group of prosperous dinner guests and pen them up long enough, [Buñuel] suggests, and they'll turn on one another like rats in an overpopulation study.”

Buñuel might also be highlighting "the difference between what is accidental and unpredictable and what is characteristic and predictable” (emphasis mine), a difference that is beyond the characters. When a servant stumbles and spills the hors d'oeuvre on the floor, they believe it was an accident until one woman says “Lucía has a style all her own,” at which point everyone praises the fall as if it was planned. These early instances are mainly played for laughs. Leandro and Cristián are introduced to each other after the dinner; a few minutes later it looks like they are old friends. They then notice Russell, who was present at both moments:

Cristián: “May I present Mr. Sergio Russell?”
Russell: “Don’t bother. Continue to present each other.”

Later, the conductor introduces Cristián to Leandro again. The next morning, two exchanges happen almost simultaneously:

Francisco/Béatriz: “I must look awful. Why stare at me?”

Juana/Edmundo: “You are more interesting than ever – unkemptness becomes you.”

At this point, Alberto is shaving himself with an electric razor when Raúl pulls it out of the socket. The next day, Raúl is shaving his legs with the same razor when Leandro pulls it out.

Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion maintains that a person’s character is not a steady state but a recurring one, akin to how a light bulb flickering at 60 Hz gives the impression of constant light. Sergio Russell is continually grumpy. Dr. Conde is continually rational. Edmundo is, true to his name, continually noble. Ana is continually superstitious. Raúl is continually aggressive. And so on.

Buñuel shows the guests’ recovery in similarly physical terms: the guests consciously repeat themselves out of their predicament. This ties in with an earlier concept of repetition: Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence, that the universe and all existence has been recurring and will keep doing so infinitely across infinite time and/or space. In popular culture, this usually takes the form of the question “Would you choose to relive the same life unto eternity?” This is re-enacted on a smaller scale in the film:

Blanca: [on being asked to play another piece] “Excuse me, but it’s late and I’m tired.”

Edmundo: “But it’s the most intimate, agreeable moment of our evening.”

As if on cue, the agreeable moment begins to last forever. Leticia says as much when she has her brainwave: “Think of how often we’ve changed positions during… this terrible eternity. It’s like a chess game. We’ve made thousands of moves. We’ve even moved the furniture hundreds of times. Yet now everything is just as it was then…”

And yet “it is the sinister fact of a Buñuel movie that no one is going anywhere and there is never any release at the end of the film. It’s one snare after another, so that the people get wrapped around themselves in claustrophobic whirlpool patterns.” Is the ending a sign that the entire film will repeat itself in another setting? Perhaps composer Thomas Adès has the best answer: “[I]t looks as though the people are in a room, but it’s not really about the room, they’re actually trapped in their own heads.”

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.