A group of high-society friends are invited to a mansion for dinner and inexplicably find themselves unable to leave in The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador), a daring masterpiece from Luis Buñuel. Made just one year after his international sensation Viridiana, this film, full of eerie, comic absurdity, furthers Buñuel’s wicked takedown of the rituals and dependencies of the frivolous upper classes.
No one wants to overstay their welcome. When invited to a social event, guests usually say their goodbyes, thank their hosts, and graciously head home at the end of the night. Sure, there's always a few stragglers who tend to linger on, failing to take the hint, but by and large everyone eventually departs. That is, unless they happen to be in a Luis Bunuel film. Through an inexplicable collapse of social etiquette and freewill, 'The Exterminating Angel' offers a dryly absurd excursion into surreal stagnation, inviting viewers to an increasingly dire dinner party which simply refuses to end.
When a group of upper class friends gather together for a meal, the dinner at first appears to go off without a hitch. But when it comes time for the guests to leave, the visitors bizarrely find themselves unable to exit the living room. The path out is completely open and clear, but the group simply cannot bring themselves to step through. As night becomes morning and back to night again, the concerned captives start to turn on each other, desperate to find a way out of their baffling situation.
At first, the guests lingering presence is flimsily explained by repeated excuses and distractions. For instance, one couple may attempt to grab their coats and leave, only to have their attentions turned elsewhere leading to a new conversation. But by the time the group finds themselves huddled in the living room, passed out on the floor overnight, the friends start to become aware of their bizarre predicament, literally asking themselves, "What are we doing here? Why didn't we leave?" No longer able to defend their extended stay as an actual choice, the visitors soon accept that they physically cannot leave the room, and Bunuel gradually plays up the escalating absurdity of this scenario with wry glee.
Dwindling courtesy and collapsing social niceties eventually give way to primal desperation and hysterics as the group slowly turns on itself, providing a darkly funny spin on the classic existential conceit that "hell is other people." Themes related to control, class dynamics, etiquette, change, and community, are all examined to some degree as well, stripping the bourgeois guests of their thinly masked facades and empty complacency while they struggle to work together under dire circumstances. With that said, Bunuel's true intentions remain potently ambiguous, faintly implying meaning and symbolism throughout the surreal runtime without ever really drawing any concrete conclusions.
Instead, it's up to the audience to decipher the carefully honed madness and imagery, using the satire and deliberate aesthetic to create their own interpretation. Stylistically, Bunuel often emphasizes space, highlighting the confined location while frequently using wide shots to keep multiple characters in the same compositions. Likewise, numerous extended takes allow the image to reframe as different guests move about the room, transitioning from character to character without cutting, sustaining the reality of the protagonists' unreal dilemma. Of course, the director also offers a few more overt excursions into surreal imagery as well, including a notable dream sequence which involves a disembodied hand.
Repetition also plays an important part in the film's visual syntax, gradually stripping the narrative and characters of their sense of time, and Bunuel even explicitly uses this technique during the movie's climax, offering a possible solution to the story's conflict through repeated staging. Taking its fascinatingly strange premise to an appropriately cyclical conclusion, 'The Exterminating Angel' becomes an absurdly surreal examination of high society complacency, polite pretenses, and the potential fragility of social conventions -- all at the hands of one really long dinner party.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'The Exterminating Angel' on Blu-ray in their standard clear keepcase with spine number 459. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a pamphlet featuring an essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder and an interview with Luis Bunuel from the 1970s.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative, this is a solid yet occasionally underwhelming image.
The print is in pretty good shape, but there are some faint lines and other signs of minor age here and there. A light to moderate layer of grain is retained as well, but it can look a little fuzzy in some shots. On that note, the picture can be quite soft and flat, sometimes lacking the fine texture and depth that one comes to expect from an HD transfer. Thankfully, details are nicely rendered in close-ups and the grayscale is balanced well. A few shots look a tad dim and blacks are slightly elevated, but overall contrast is good.
'The Exterminating Angel' comes to Blu-ray with a decidedly modest image. There are some minor age-related issues and a predominantly soft quality, but the transfer gets the job done well enough -- even if one does get the sense that a newer master could yield better results.
The film is presented with a Spanish LPCM mono track and optional English subtitles. Though there are some noticeable quirks, the track is still serviceable.
Dialogue has a comparatively thin sound, and the film's modest single channel effects work and music cues also carry a slightly strained and hollow quality. Likewise, background hissing can be heard periodically throughout the runtime. Thankfully, while these issues are readily apparent, they don't ruin the presentation, and the overall mix is still quite effective.
Marked by some understandable age-related problems, the mono track can be a tad rough but always remains intelligible.
Criterion has put together a decent collection of supplements, including a documentary and interviews. All of the extras are presented in 1080i with Dolby Digital sound and subtitles for the foreign language portions (unless noted otherwise).
Luis Bunuel's 'The Exterminating Angel' offers a dryly absurd descent into surreal satire. Appropriately ambiguous and darkly funny, the film allows audiences to draw their own conclusions. From a technical perspective, the video and audio both get the job done, but do show occasional signs of outdated mastering and understandable age. While not packed with supplements, the included documentary and interviews offer some worthwhile insights, rounding out a solid disc. For fans of the surreal and avant-garde, this release comes highly recommended.