The Exterminating Angel

El Angel Exterminador, 1962, Spanish/Mexico

My fascination with The Exterminating Angel began in 2014, right before my high school final exams. On a late night, when my mother was convinced I was hard at work, I watched the Indian film Party (1984). This chamber drama about the artist’s place in society occurs over the course of a single evening, at a party thrown by (and for) a motley group of artists and socialites. The topic of discussion is a poet who has left the “civilized” world to work among oppressed tribals. Everyone eventually realises they are trapped in their own professional and personal hell – even the absent poet doesn’t escape unscathed. As a 17-year-old who would soon have to choose between engineering and English literature, the film was a godsend.

But where does The Exterminating Angel come in?

Party is a distant relative of Buñuel’s film and probably deserves its own research paper. The artists can’t leave their self-satisfied, hollow society of “culture” even if they want to, a fact that the last minute of the film (the only surrealist scene) drives home. A retrospective review explicitly mentioned The Exterminating Angel, and I dutifully went off to watch it.

There is no scope here at the moment to draw out parallels, such as Thomas Adès’ 2016 opera adaptation of the film; Buñuel’s own later work, such as Angel’s spiritual successor The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (where the guests can’t even begin their dinner); the documentary The Castaways of Providence Street (the working title of Angel), in which Buñuel entertains, among others, the novelist Carlos Fuentes; and far-flung descendants like Party. No art is made in a vacuum, but it is just possible that the anti-interpretation Buñuel might have approved.

© 2021 by Shwetant Kumar.