Sunday, October 20, 2013

Trapped in the Closet

Film: El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I’m never sure what I’m going to get when I sign myself up for a film directed by Luis Bunuel. Sometimes I really like his work a lot. At other times, I wonder why I bother. I’d heard a lot good about El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), but once bitten and all of that. There are too many Bunuel films that I genuinely don’t like at all that I’m going to be suspicious of any of them all the way through. What I’ve found is that I tend to like his work a lot more when, absurd or not, there’s a narrative through-line. Things can be absurd and I’m okay with it; it’s when they don’t make sense that I get bothered.

El Angel Exterminador, while absurd in the extreme, has an internally consistent narrative. A group of people go to a dinner party at the home of a man named Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal). Everything goes well, but for some reason, the servants suddenly find reasons to be away from the house. In the middle of the party all of them except the main butler (Claudio Brook) wander off suddenly with pressing appointments. The party goes off, and eventually everyone retires to the parlor where one of the guests plays the piano.

And then…well, nothing really happens, but no one leaves. It’s late and people claim to need to go home, but they stay, all sleeping in the parlor. The next morning, the butler brings in food (none of the servants have returned), and once he brings in the food, he’s unable to leave, either. They’re all stuck inside the room. Nothing physical is preventing them from leaving, but they can’t get themselves to walk out the door. Each time someone tries to leave, something stops him or her at the door and turns them around.

We see snippets of the first day and learn about the relationships and physical problems of the different guests. Lack of food and water soon becomes a problem. Tempers get short, and a contingent of the people trapped in the room are of the opinion that the best way out of the situation is to sacrifice Nobile, who they are certain has done something to trap them. If he did, he’s managed to trap himself. Interestingly, the same sort of problem exists for the house itself. While the police and a crowd have gathered outside, no one is able to get back inside the house.

I won’t talk about how this resolves, because, while it makes no sense, it’s not something to spoil. I really shouldn’t say it makes no sense—it makes as much sense as anything else in the film.

A film like El Angel Exterminador isn’t about the performances or even the bizarre plot. It’s all about the interpretation. I have some ideas of what it might mean, or at least what it might mean to me. I have no idea if I’m close to Bunuel’s purpose with the film, but I do have an idea that holds together pretty well.

Luis Bunuel has never had a soft spot for the wealthier classes; his artistic heart has always been with the indigent. Routinely in his films bot the upper classes of society and the church feel the brunt of his scorn and are dealt with most harshly by the surreal nature of the events he films. This is no different here—the victims of the strange curse are all wealthy people who, evidently in Bunuel’s view, live off the labor of the classes below them. It’s not without reason that his screenplay spares the servants, allowing them to have some form of premonition to get out before the hammer drops and the people are trapped. The one servant stuck inside is the one whose job also depends on the other servants, since he is in charge of them.

In a sense, when the servants leave, something as simple as walking out a door bcomes impossible for the wealthy elite. They are completely stymied in progressing or doing anything more. Tellingly, nothing inside the room changes significantly until the servants show up outside again some days later. The minute the working classes from the inside of the house are in attendance, things begin to change inside the room.

At least that’s what I noticed—not that the lower classes are subservient, but that the elite classes of society are actually entirely dependent on the servants and can do nothing without them. Better, this appears to be in line with Bunuel’s basic philosophy. Was this the intent? I have no idea. I can say that the absurd nature of the story worked better for me here than a lot of Bunuel’s films because as strange as the story is, it holds together as a narrative. Evidently, that goes a long way with me.

It also helps that it reminds me a lot of “High Rise,” the short novel by J.G. Ballard. Ballard is one of my favorite authors and “High Rise” is one of his best books. In it, a group of wealthy people move into a new apartment building that is furnished with all modern conveniences, allowing them to essentially live out their lives inside the building. Once full capacity is reached, society slowly breaks down and reverts to barbarism and worse. People are free to leave the building, but no one does. Ballard’s work is a lot more extreme and violent, but it really feels like he got the nut of the idea from this film.

Why to watch El Angel Exterminador: Bunuel at his best.
Why not to watch: While it holds together, it still doesn’t make a lot of sense.


  1. So who or what is the exterminating angel? Is the angel synonymous with the spiritual inertia that prevents people from leaving the house? If so, then who gets exterminated when everyone's trapped inside (not having seen the movie, I got a very "roach motel" vibe from your review: las cucarachas entran, pero no pueden salir*)? Is the house itself the exterminating angel, a passive predator like a pitcher plant? There's something almost Stephen King-ish going on here. That, or something Homeric, somewhere between the Sirens and the Lotus Eaters.

    *As much a "Ren and Stimpy" reference as anything else.

    1. Bluntly, I have no idea why Bunuel called this The Exterminating Angel. In some ways, the title is the most nonsensical part of the whole thing. I recommend this one to you especially, though. I think you might find a lot that I missed.

  2. I'm not sure Bunuel really succeeds with his themes, which are really obvious. Still, I had a lot of fun with this movie. It's so audacious, especially with the kicker of an ending. On a random note, there's a Buffy episode with a similar premise that seems to draw a lot from this movie.

    1. You're the second person to mention Buffy in relation to this film (the first is Chip Lary's review).

      "Audacious" is probably the best one-word review of this film.

  3. I think your interpretation of this film is as good as any other I've read. It's definitely designed to present the rich is a bad light.

    I remember Dan being a fan of the Buffy show, too, in the early days when I discovered his blog, so it doesn't surprise me that he remembered that episode.

    And just a note on your post titles. I've mentioned this before, but I like how you manage to work multiple meanings into them and also reference music quite a bit. Just a couple posts ago you did Metallica and now you're doing Kanye West with this one (or was it P. Diddy who did trapped in the closet?) Either way, they're far removed from Metallica.

    1. I tend to like musical references with my titles, at least when it's relevant. I should thus come clean and tell you that the title for the review of Gravity is (except for the parenthetical) the name of a song by Grandaddy. Looking back at just this month, I see I've also referenced the Go-Gos, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, and the Boomtown Rats.

      I don't know if my interpretation is what Bunuel would have wanted, but I'm going to stick with it because it works for me and I could actually argue it.

  4. Your explanation works for me. Apparently Ebert interpreted the story a bot wider, making it a story of Spain itself. I can see it both ways. Too bad the movie itself did not work for me.

    1. Ebert was likely closer to the ultimate truth than I was. Bunuel did a lot of commentary on Spain and fascism, so it wouldn't surprise me if his intent was ultimately a lot broader than I caught.