After attending the opera, a bunch of impeccably dressed Mexican aristocrats attend a luxuriant dinner party in a grand castle-like estate on a street named Providence. The tux-clad head butler bustles and sets a long, opulent dining table intricately arrayed with candlesticks and elegant dining ware. A gleaming ice sculpture of a swan is gently filled with caviar. Yet amid all the worldly splendor, there’s clearly something uncanny happening. The servants are leaving, hurriedly, and for unexplained reasons. The dinner guests, glittering in their crisp dark suits and angelic white dresses, glow almost obliviously in the elegant black and white cinematography.
Next door, in the immaculate kitchen, things get weirder. There is a young brown bear inexplicably tethered to a wall, while a small flock of jostling lambs take shelter under a table. The stiffly genteel guests murmur about each other’s sex lives, pretend to listen to a classical piano recital, and whoop it up when a butler carrying a loaded tray accidentally trips and falls flat on his face. We see that one of the guests superstitiously hides a chicken foot in her purse. Suddenly they discover that they aren’t able to leave the drawing-room. They’re stuck, forced to sit close together, and they can’t explain exactly why.
Welcome to the surreal world of Luis Buñuel, one of cinema’s great subversives. Originally hailing from Spain, he grew up with the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the painter Salvador Dali. Moving to Paris and partnering with Dali, their first film Un Chien Anadolu helped to fire up the already fertile avant-garde in 20s Paris. Rumor has it that at the film’s premiere Buñuel put stones in his pocket in case the audience got unruly. He needn’t have worried. Fellow Spaniard Picasso dug it and the surrealist writers immediately hailed him as one of their own.
The short film intentionally refuses even the slightest attempt of narrative or interpretation — instead of a plot, there is a series of dreamlike images set to an incongruously grand opera on the soundtrack. One moment there are trembling hands covered in ants, then a grand piano with a dead donkey splayed out on top of it is dragged across a room, and there’s the infamously sliced eyeball. I have seen an auditorium full of freshmen film students gasp in horror at that particular scene — it really does look like he’s slicing that woman’s eye open, but rest assured it was just a cleverly edited sequence. Some say that nothing’s shocking anymore, but evidently we’re less desensitized than we like to think we are. What exhilarated avant-garde Paris almost 100 years ago still freaks out modern teenagers.
Their next film L’Age D’Or pushed it even farther, with priests mysteriously dissolving into scorpions, frustrated lovers manically sucking fingers and getting turned on by statues, and that did the trick. Right-wing newspapers took umbrage at the assault on bourgeois hypocrisy and some outraged audience members threw ink at the screen. L’Age D’Or wasn’t legally able to be screened in America until 1979. Of course, Dali went on to his acclaimed career as a painter of dreamscapes while Buñuel continued telling unique, challenging, and mysterious stories for the next several decades.
After stints in Paris, Hollywood, and New York he was almost granted American citizenship but got fired by the Museum of Modern Art for ungrounded suspicions about his politics. Buñuel had spent many years in Mexico by the time he made The Exterminating Angel in 1962. It marks one of the key transition points in his illustriously kinky career. It combines the edgy provocations of his early work with the subtle social satires to come. These included titles like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and especially his magisterial swan song That Obscure Object of Desire. Just the titles alone suggest Buñuel’s overriding themes and obsessions throughout his long career.
Buñuel stubbornly refused to have any group affiliation whatsoever. Even though critics always tried to categorize him, he never wanted to explain the hidden meanings of any of his films and often denied that there were any. What interested him above all else was rewriting accepted social scripts to show their inner absurdities and expose subtle repressiveness that lay within them. It’s not that Buñuel wanted to blow up the social order just for the hell of it; what he really loved was demonstrating how absurd it all really is.
It’s only natural that Buñuel would keep running afoul of the powers that be wherever he happened to live. Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco ran the country with an iron fist and tried to ban 1963’s Viridiana, whose creepy uncle lusting after his nubile niece has been interpreted as a metaphor for the perverse heart of fascism. But nobody gets a harder time in the Buñuel universe than the church, which was in his eyes the ultimate arbitrary power.
In a wise and witty move, his films juxtapose the sanctified with the silly, which is probably the most effective way to make a secular critique — otherwise, you run the risk of being just as narrow-minded and intolerant as the people you’re criticizing. In The Milky Way, the famously hirsute Jesus enjoys a nice shave. In The Phantom of Liberty, a bunch of priests play cards to win religious medals. In Simon of the Desert, a film that cracks me up, a wannabe saint stands alone on a pedestal for months only to spontaneously jump-cut into a modern nightclub, where he looks around awkwardly while the hip young things around him gyrate to rock music, doing a new dance named after the atom bomb.
Without an agenda but with an instinctive feeling for those on the margins, Buñuel had already dramatized the slums of Mexico City in the gritty, hallucinogenic Los Olvidados where the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy are given an unflinchingly steady gaze. The Exterminating Angel scrutinizes the upper echelon of the class structure, suggesting how myopic, self-involved, and subsequently, oblivious these otherwise coddled people are, especially under pressure. As we watch their spiffy tuxes and evening gowns wilting with perspiration, their internalized narcissism comes out. An elderly man dies and they brusquely shove his body in the closet. Another is dying of cancer and her morphine is stolen. A young engaged couple ends up committing suicide. At one point we hear the lament “why isn’t someone coming to help us?” It’s clear that they’ve been conditioned by their comfortable lives to assume that it’s all about them.
An instinct for hierarchy and obeisance, and the unconscious entitlement that comes with it, has been ingrained in them long ago. They have panic attacks, see apocalyptic visions, try and fail to use mystical incantations to shake the curse, weep in self-pity. When a random rock is thrown through the window one of them casually assumes that a Jew did it, without the slightest bit of evidence. A disembodied hand emerges and starts to scurry around the floor, which inspired the character The Thing in The Addams Family. Appearing on American TV soon after The Exterminating Angel, it was the kind of show Buñuel might have appreciated, which celebrated eccentricity and had lots of fun with its surrealist flights of fancy.
Finally, smashing open a pipe in the wall, they immediately start designating who gets to be the first to gulp the spray down first. One character portentously wonders aloud that “the attitude of those outside concerns me more than our situation.” The fact that the servants seemed to know what was coming ahead of time and got out while the getting was good suggests that they were already conscious of the glaring class inequalities lurking right outside of the narrow social space these aristocrats have gotten used to. I don’t want to give away the plot twist, but the way they figure out how to break the mysterious spell only reinforces their self-absorption.
By the end of the film, our group of frazzled bourgeoise finds themselves attending Catholic service in a magnificent cathedral with great solemnity while an angry mob gathers outside. There’s another inexplicable barrier between the crowd and the elite standing inside the church; for some reason, no one outside of it is able to enter that space, even though they can easily see across the distance. Eventually, the police come and force the crowd back with gunshots, and as the heavy church bells toll the last image a flock of sheep scurries back into the cathedral as if looking for shelter in a storm.
For all his rich imagination, Buñuel always maintained that the most surreal thing of all is actually everyday life. He liked to use the example of a switchblade made in the shape of a crucifix, which he randomly found at a flea market. The coronavirus pandemic has made everything surreal. It has changed everything about our day-to-day life, emptying streets across the world. I myself haven’t left the house for any significant length of time in months, and many of the renowned restaurants and music clubs where I live are eerily boarded up and ominously silent. Nobody knows for sure when we will make it over this hump, either.
On some level, it seems like everything outside of one’s immediate sphere of influence has come to an inexplicable standstill. At the same time, there’s an undeniable ripple of anxiety, if not panic, in the air. You can catch it in the breathless social media posts and in the twisted faces in photographs. In one sense, the Covid-19 situation isn’t comparable to The Exterminating Angel because with coronavirus the threat is quantifiable, measurable, and has very specific and significant consequences. Even the most widely circulated origin story of the virus — someone ate bat soup in a wet market in China? — is almost like something out of a Buñuel film.
Weird as it is, the reality of the situation is making it difficult, both for ordinary people and institutions, to brush it off. It’s becoming undeniable that the current administration, who are exactly the people who are supposed to be entrusted to effectively handle pandemics like this, are cocooned within the creature comforts of their long-held privilege. The President just doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing — he has already falsely claimed that the summer heat would take care of the virus, or that disinfectant applied to the lungs does it, and now either changes his story on a daily basis or hurls insults back at the people who question him even slightly on basic issues.
Suffice to say that the person with arguably the most power and influence in the situation, who has enjoyed a lifetime of undeniable privilege, is the least helpful. Neither are the everyday people who support him and shout that the whole thing is really just a hoax, a political hit job, and sometimes come to do shout these inside state buildings while armed. In a certain sense, our national situation is very reminiscent of the film because once the usual habits and patterns of life are disrupted, some people really just don’t know any better than to lash out at the people around them.
It isn’t accidental that the heroes who have emerged from this crisis tend to be the essential workers, like doctors and nurses, mail carriers and deliverers, who above all else are responsible for simply doing their jobs without complaining about how inconvenienced they are or fretting about who might be criticizing them. It couldn’t be a more crucial time for those who make it their business to pay attention to the facts on the ground, and worry about the well being of their fellow citizens, to be taken seriously. It isn’t about you anymore. We don’t need more people freaking out over their personal dramas or wondering who will fix the mess they made.
It isn’t surprising that the most admirable character in the film is the doctor, who patiently attends to the weak and who keeps his head, responding logically and methodically to problems when they arise, just when the rest of the group start to lose theirs. Especially in a time of crisis, we should value reason over all else. Being skeptical of official narratives makes a certain amount of sense in the current fraught moment, but we should put our trust in the people whose job it is to know what they’re doing. Otherwise, the film’s ominous title ends up sounding less like surrealism and more like prophecy. •