The most terrifying existential crisis, awful enough that it goes unmentioned in Sartre and Karl Jasper, is dealing with guests who don’t want to leave. In 1962, Luis Buñuel fused this and two of his other fascinations — food and the banal rich — into a pungent script he called The Exterminating Angel. The last film the Spanish director made in adopted home Mexico, The Exterminating Angel was also the last to benefit from a budget that covered the doilies and silverware but not the tuxedos. The cheapness of the film helps in the right ways: when the guests turn surly with hunger and exhaustion, the 800-peso formal wear, sewn from what Buñuel called tropical cloth, wrinkles like linen napkins left in the rain. The Exterminating Angel is a summa of the director’s Mexican exile, an exercise in jolting the audience out of its constrictions worthy of Hitchcock, and a grand joke never as piercing as Buñuel thinks at the expense of the bourgeoisie.
Although the credits say “based on a play by José Bergamin,” neither Buñuel nor co-writer Luis Alcoriza had seen it; nor had Bergamin, in an example of life imitating a Surrealist comedy, even written his play. As usual, Buñuel relied on his instincts for a gripping yarn. “That’s a magnificent title. If I were walking down the street and saw that title on a marquee, I would go inside to see the show,” he told Jose de la Colina in an interview collected in the essential Objects of Desire. Why this collection of decadents can’t leave the den of Nubile (Enrique Rambal) defies logic. Gripped by an inertia without cause, guests change their minds at the moment they’re about to cross over to another section of the mansion. First they drowse in their finery across sofas and chairs. Then they run out of food. They’re reduced to drinking stagnant flower water. Finally, they’re taking turns sipping from the pipes in the wall. Meanwhile all manner of Buñuelian nonsense unfurls in the background: a bear, taking advantage of the abdication of human authority, patrols the house; pet sheep hang out under the table; a delirious woman babbles about glimpsing an eagle flying over mountain peaks after using a closet turned into a makeshift toilet.
Mordant, gross, and very funny, The Exterminating Angel has become a locus for Marxist criticism over the years. Preparing for the dinner party that precipitates the disaster, the servants grumble about a sinister force that compels them to leave. The one who stays is Nobile’s most trusted servant and, as majordomo, the one whose pretensions run closest to the guests. Buñuel’s ear for the idle chat of rotters produces stupid-apt exchanges like the guest remarking on hearing a window shatter, “It was a probably a passing Jew.” Human fatuity provides him endless amusement. When a server trips, tray bearing a “Maltese” delicacy made of liver, almonds, and honey, the gusts laugh. Carlos Conde (Augusto Benedico), a doctor who’s all reasonableness and forbearance, finds his liberal values insufficient if not laughable in the face of squalor. But the film makes sense only to itself, as its delicious ending shows.
As previously stated, The Exterminating Angel marked an end of sorts for Buñuel. His next film was the French language remake of Diary of a Chambermaid, kicking off a fecund collaboration with scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière. A decade later, The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, the purest product of their labors, lacked even a pretense of scurrility. If it was an indictment of the upper classes, it was the mildest kind. With the serenity of old age, Luis Buñuel understood that while some things never change it didn’t prevent him from laughing at them anyway.
The Exterminating Angel plays tonight at Gables Art Cinema at 7 p.m.