In life, as in film, I’ve always been fascinated by repetition.
I have yet to come across a decent review of this one of the most powerful of all films made (this despite its flaws). Even Roger Ebert seems to skirt things. If one substitutes the “bourgeois cosmopolitans” with the ruling class of sophisticates that run universities (administrators and academics) or the political class of across the ideological spectrum, the film takes on an even more disturbing and salient resonance. As Ebert puts it: “They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed.”
Here is an extract from Bunuel’s elegant autobiography My Last Breath (with his recipe for a martini) on The Exterminating Angel followed by the great Silvia Pinal talking about it:
The Exterminating Angel was made in Mexico, although I regret that I was unable to shoot it in Paris or London with European actors and adequate costumes. Despite the beauty of the house where it was shot and my effort to select actors who didn’t look particularly Mexican, there was a certain tawdriness in many of its aspects. We couldn’t get any really fine table napkins, for instance, and the only one I could show on camera was borrowed from the makeup artist. The screenplay, however, was entirely original. It’s the story of a group of friends who have dinner together after seeing a play, but when they go into the living room after dinner, they find that for some inexplicable reason they can’t leave. In its early stages, the working title was The Castaways of Providence Street, but then I remembered a magnificent title that Jose Bergamin had mentioned when he’d talked to me in Madrid the previous year about a play he wanted to write. “If I saw The Exterminating Angel on a marquee,” I told him, “I’d go in and see it on the spot.” When I wrote him from Mexico asking for news of his play, he From Spain to Mexico to France (1960-1977) replied that he hadn’t written it yet, and that in any case the title wasn’t his. It came, he said, from the Apocalypse, and was therefore in the public domain. There are many things in the film taken directly from life. I went to a large dinner party in New York where the hostess had decided to amuse her guests by staging various surprises: for example, a waiter who stretched out to take a nap on the carpet in the middle of dinner while he was carrying a tray of food. (In the film, of course, the guests don’t find his antics quite so amusing.) She also brought in a bear and two sheep scene in the movie that prompted several critics to symbolic excesses, including the bear as Bolshevism waiting to ambush capitalistic society, which had been paralyzed by its contradictions. In life, as in film, I’ve always been fascinated by repetition. Why certain things tend to repeat themselves over and over again I have no idea, but the phenomenon intrigues me enormously. There are at least a dozen repetitions in The Exterminating Angel. Two men introduce themselves and shake hands, saying, “Delighted!” They meet again a moment later and repeat the routine as if they’d never seen each other before. The third time, they greet each other with great enthusiasm, like two old friends. Another repetition occurs when the guests enter the hall and the host calls his butler twice; in fact, it’s the exact same scene, but shot from different angles. “Luis,” my chief cameraman said to me while the film was being cut, “there’s something very wrong here.” “What?” I asked. “The scene where they enter the house is in there twice!” (Since he was the one who filmed both sequences, I still wonder how he could possibly have thought that such a colossal “error” had escaped both me and the editor.) The Extermimting Angel is one of the rare films I’ve sat through more than once, and each time I regret its weaknesses, not to mention the very short time we had to work on it. Basically, I simply see a group of people who couldn’t do what they wanted to-leave a room. That kind of dilemma, the impossibility of satisfying a simple desire, often not to mention the very short time we had to work on it. Basically, I simply see a group of people who couldn’t do what they wanted to-leave a room. That kind of dilemma, the impossibility of satisfying a simple desire, often occurs in my movies. In L’Age d’or, for example, two people want to get together but can’t, and in That Obscure Object of Desire there’s an aging man who can’t satisfy his sexual desire. Similarly, Archibaldo de la Cruz tries in vain to commit suicide, while the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie try very hard to eat dinner together, but never can manage to do it.