Following his second exile from Spain after whittling Francisco Franco's olive branch into a spear and stabbing the generalissimo with it, Luis Buñuel returned to Mexico with the creative team behind Viridiana. As if nothing had ever happened, Buñuel set about making his next film with them, casting Silvia Pinal in another prominent role and using her then-husband Gustavo Alatriste as producer once more. The resulting picture, The Exterminating Angel, was later dismissed by its own creator, who felt that the picture needed to be set in France to better display its anti-bourgeois feelings. But setting does not matter: The Exterminating Angel is the first of Buñuel's films to work dynamically as a feature rather than a series of twisted visions, and whether he liked it or not, it informed nearly the whole of his later career.
Opening on a church as the congregation sings Latin hymns inside, the scene shifts instantly when the credits end to the upper-class side of town, far away from the pious working class that fills the cathedral. At a lavish mansion, the owner, Edmundo Nobile, makes final preparations for his party. Immaculately dressed and poised, Edmundo emits an air of such perfection that, though we meet him outside his home, there can be no doubt as to the careful arrangement of everything inside.
Before he can enjoy the party, however, problems arise with the servants. The servers and cook up and leave before and during the party, some of them making thin excuses to Edmundo and his wife, Lucia, others simply slipping out the door when no one's looking. At last, only the majordomo is left, and Lucia cancels a planned bit of entertainment involving a small bear and some sheep in a huff. However, the guests do not notice the aberration, and the party goes off without a hitch.
Gently laying clues leading to the direction of the movie, Buñuel uses the dinner to mount a realistic portrait of the absurdist slant he's about to take on his social commentary. Only the cook's departure particularly irks the host family; Edmundo cares not for the first boy leaving as he knows he can always find another poor kid around town to wait on him for a pittance. The dinner table is so vast that conversation breaks up into pockets of self-contained discussion among miniature parties, all of which whisper comments regarding members of the other sections of the table. After eating, they lounge as one guest plays a sonata until the time grows late and people begin moving to leave.
But no one does. Those who make their way to the door find themselves drawn back into the salon. People talk of having appointments in the morning, but the party wears on, and suddenly the guest take off their vests and jackets and prepare for the most well-dressed sleepover of all time. (Buñuel's typical humor abounds here: Lucia is aghast at the scandal of the guests taking off their jackets, but Edmundo dispels her shock "Let us remove our coats as well, to attenuate the incorrectness," he says diplomatically.)
The next morning, the guests awaken and loll around as they rub the sleep out of their eyes. Still, no one leaves, content to stretch and resume pleasantries without anyone making their way to the door. Finally, some start noticing this, leading some to laugh at the coincidences that bind them. Yet when one couple insist upon leaving to prove how ridiculous the mild concern is, they stop at the archway, claiming to want a cup of coffee before leaving. Julio, the majordomo, forgets spoons, but when he goes to get spoons, he cannot move past the arch, slumping into a chair. Now it is fully obvious: despite no impediment blocking the door, no one inside can leave the salon. Something tugs at them whenever they try to leave, trapping them in a room too small to fit the number of occupants.
If the dinner itself subtly displayed the tribalism inherent even in the refined sensibilities of the bourgeoisie, this new twist brings about open war among the guests. All the expensive trinkets and decorations in the room become as worthless as they truly are as those inside use vases to relieve themselves in and break open a wall to get at the water pipe within, using drink platters to hold the plaster and debris. The whispered insults give way to open comments as guests tear at each other in starvation and madness.
Buñuel's absurd touches only pile on. Where his early camera work had been more elegant and placed in long shots, now he constricts the frame within the tiny room, pushing in on the stir-crazy rich folk. The pressure gets to them: a sickly old man dies and is locked in a cupboard; later, two young lovers find a cupboard of their own and commit suicide. The remaining guests give in to hallucinations, leading to montages of Buñuel's surrealist imagery as a disembodied hand crawls along the floor and a cello bow turns into a saw. Some even resort to witchcraft to get out of the house, looking for any supernatural power to save them. Outside, a group of policemen and interested civilians gathers, but no one can get inside to rescue the guests, unable to break the same barrier that binds the wealthy. Of course they can't: they weren't invited to the party.
The satire is both open and layered. The guests obviously stand-in for the insulated, endless partying of the bourgeoisie in Franco's Spain, where the middle class ignored their leader's atrocity to maintain their own comfort. But they are only one piece of this puzzle: when later social classes experience similar phenomena, Buñuel moves beyond mere class critique to indict the entire hierarchy and its restrictive hold on each group: the working class find themselves trapped in church, their realm of empty comfort, while the rich cannot leave their salons (and just as the servants escaped the house at the start, so too do the eventually freed rich slip out of the church while others mill about). Buñuel's repeated shots lead to repeated situations, widening the net to include the working class and the clergy. Sheep become a scathing symbol, not only when a herd runs into a church in the final shot but when the three lambs intended for that bizarre entertainment with the bear get loose and run into the parlor, where the starving guests set upon them viciously for food. Clearly, the sheep are the common people, hiding from their doom in the Church and getting torn apart by the wealthy.
That repetition ultimately frees the rich, ironically breaking them from being trapped in the party when one guest (Pinal) has everyone recreate the first night to the letter to break the mysterious curse. They escape as the rest of the world begins to fall in the same trap, and the film ends with riots and gunshots. The depressing final message of The Exterminating Angel is that full revolt against the prison of the class structure will only occur when it literally constricts so even the most clueless will realize the truth of their oppression. No one could accuse Buñuel of being cheerful, but comedy is never about rebuilding anyway, only tearing down. And nobody could tear down like Buñuel. He would mine this film for much of his late French period, especially The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which allowed him to make a variation of the same film in France as he wished. Yet Buñuel never equaled this achievement, a sharply focused, bitingly hysterical work that condensed the best of the director into his most focused work. Buñuel has several masterpieces, but this may well be the finest.