”I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”
I’m glad that I came to Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel later in my life, as I’m almost positive that seeing his work when I was a younger man would have confused and frustrated me. There’s no way I could have fully appreciated or even understood his surrealist approach to filmmaking, particularly in a movie like 1962’s The Exterminating Angel (aka El Angel Exterminador). The film, long on my wish list of titles to track down, is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, still the gold standard of home video releasing.
Like his later film, 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, this scathing satire concerns a dinner party held and attended by the wealthy Spanish upper class from which the guests are unable to leave. The reasons for their entrapment are unclear; it’s not that they’re locked there, but rather that they cannot bring themselves to leave the house. The longer the predicament continues, the more all of the guests begin to break down and go insane, turning on one another and resorting to savagery. I guess I wouldn’t want to be stuck with these people either.
While The Exterminating Angel has no doubt lost some of its relevance in terms of the very specific conditions in Spain on which Buñuel is commenting, it’s still a movie that has gained a new resonance for America in 2017. As the income gap becomes more and more of an income chasm, there is much of Buñuel’s movie that speaks to our current times. And even if it didn’t, the film remains a sharply written piece of absurdism that introduces a fantastic premise (by which I mean that it is rooted in fantasy and also that it is really cool) and follows it through to…well, I was going to say “its logical conclusion” but that wouldn’t be accurate, as there is nothing logical about The Exterminating Angel. Buñuel wants nothing to do with logic. He simply wants to shred the establishment through art, which he manages to do with equal parts sledgehammer and scalpel.
Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Exterminating Angel presents the movie in 1080p HD in its original Academy aspect ratio; the transfer is good but not quite as remarkable as some of their recent 2K and 4K restorations of classic titles. The contrast is generally good on the black and white image, but there’s some fluctuation between softness and artificial sharpness in certain sequences and some visible print damage, though it has been kept to a minimum. The Spanish-language audio is present in lossless mono and sounds good, with clear dialogue and no real inconsistencies. English subtitles are included.
The most significant bonus feature on the Criterion disc is a 2008 documentary about the life and career of the director called The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel. At over 90 minutes, it’s like a second feature film has been included. Two archival interviews with subjects who either knew or worked with Buñuel, Silvia Pinal and Arturo Ripstein, are also available, as is the movie’s original trailer. In addition, Criterion has included their usual collectible booklet, which contains bonus photos and essays about the movie.
Of the Buñuel movies I’ve seen (and I can’t say I’ve seen every one of theme yet), I won’t say that The Exterminating Angel is my favorite, mostly because Belle du Jour still exists. But it is one of his most interesting and scathing works — a funny, ridiculous and ultimately anarchic takedown of the ruling class and those that allow them to remain in power. Watching Criterion’s new Blu-ray in 2017, it’s almost as if Buñuel was able to see the future. The more things change, I guess.