The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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Second time with Buñuel after Un Chien Andalou.

[Pompous engagement banquet. After an ominous exodus of the help, the wrinkled affair crumples against a mysterious invisible barrier that blockades the guests in a single room. The night turns into a month of the weirdest slumber party ever.]

Like a bizarro Christie plot. Opening reminded me of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death; here too the stultified self-preservatory instincts of the upper classes are satirised, though without any ghastly intrusions. Horror vacui interiors and unconvincing machismo. The hysteria builds as one guest blindly postulates that the outside world has been destroyed and that they are the only survivors of some apocalypse.

Definitely Sartre’s No Exit, too, in the way this escalation reveals the inhumanity not just behind but inside the masks of decorum (one woman’s self-deceptive “the lower orders are insensible to suffering”). Liked the dead bird in the purse amid masonic allusions and incestuous intrigue. Editing often enhances the caustic tone, as in the cuts between the sequestered silver-screen embrace and the corpse in the cupboard.

After UCA, the most startlingly surrealistic moments are definitely the most satisfying. The more directly assaultive dream sequence is the highlight, a blast of brimstone for each face screwed tight with naïve worry. Also in particular the pursuit of the severed hand, the appearances of the sheep and the bear. Surprisingly, I thought, a lot of the satire is verbal (including some ironic praise of “the spirit of improvisation” from the guests, and a clamour that “we don’t want reason – we want to get out!”), which made images like the butler tipping debris and waste just over the boundary-line stick out. Loved the climactic zoom out from the prostrate sleepover victims to a laughable call for a duel.

Unfortunately the sober tone creates a lot of slack that the script’s skewerings can only take up to a satisfactory extent. It’s considerably less funny than I was expecting, and not very shocking. Quite fun and upbeat but also pretty predictable after premises are established. A lot of the stooges like cabalistic hooey and masonic conspiracy seem quite quaint now. Still, on this count, the frequent references to curing “apathy” among the squabbling elites does still sound a bitter note.

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