By Daniel Barnes
NOTE: On the original 2008-10 blog incarnation of ESFS, one of my favorite programs was the Bunuel festival, in which we watched L’Age d’Or, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and my personal favorite, The Exterminating Angel. This is a combination of two different reviews written in March 2009, which sort of explains the reference to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.
Watching all three of these Bunuel films in such a short time span, you can see the common threads that run through fifty years of filmmaking – a compulsive urge to belittle piety, conformity, and bourgeois society; a penchant for the shocking, inexplicable moment; and the constant intermingling of dream life, waking life, and movie life, the last of which Bunuel would probably consider a combination of the first two.
If, as I’ve said earlier, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is like hearing someone talk about their dream (turgid, rambling), then The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is like seeing a performance of someone’s dream (clever, mannered), and The Exterminating Angel and L’Age d’Or are like peering into someone’s head and watching their dreams (paranoid, strange). In the latter two films, the action, however ridiculous, proceeds from a demented sort of coherence, just as dream narratives are usually compelled by a mysterious urgency.
Bunuel tended to pile gags on top of gags, almost like silent comedians or the Marx Brothers; he was as influenced by Groucho and Buster Keaton as by any other filmmakers. There is almost a self-aware acknowledgment of this method at the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel – a waiter trips and spills the food before serving, and all but one the upper-class guests applaud and laugh uproariously, thinking the pratfall was a joke. At first, we assume the nobs are being callous and juvenile towards the servant class, but when the waiter returns to the kitchen, we find out that it WAS a joke, and the man who DIDN’T laugh was the jerk. However, this explanation only muddles the logic of the situation further.
Shot in France after a long tenure in Mexico, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is by far the drollest of the three pictures, but you can see the same anarchic, gag-heavy comedy in the film’s best sequences. It’s consistently playful and fascinating, although perhaps a bit rote and formal compared to the other two movies. Discreet Charm… FEELS like the career-capping work of a great director, a little safer and more familiar, so naturally it won Bunuel his only Oscar.
The Exterminating Angel is the real apex of Bunuel’s brand of anarchic, surrealist satire, a genuine masterpiece that springs uncannily to life with every succeeding scene. The plot is razor thin, but with endless variations – a blabbering group of aristocrats convenes for a dinner party, only to find that all of the servants have fled, like forest creatures supernaturally aware of an impending disaster. This leads to one of my favorite scenes from the film, in which the well-dressed mob, with no servants to guide them, wanders into the same room over and over again.
Bunuel’s style is deceptively simple – almost all of the action takes place in one room, but the movements within the frame have the rigorous, hilarious, and almost poignantly beautiful choreography of great slapstick. As the evening winds down, the guests grow outrageously weary and find that they cannot leave the parlor, even though there is nothing physically impeding their exit. It’s as though even the mildest diversion in the master/servant social order leads them directly into madness, despair, and a complete loss of faith.
Eventually, the nobs form a makeshift refugee camp in the lavishly decorated parlor (fittingly, paintings of angels gaze at these damned creatures from the wall), and within a few hours revert to drug use, savagery, and paganism. The layers of civility peel away to expose both petty fears and existential dread, and as the partygoers start dying of some unnamed plague, there are intimations of a great extermination bearing down upon them all.
While the motivations in The Exterminating Angel are mysterious and the situations are ridiculous, they are propelled by a queer inner logic that makes the film utterly dreamlike. Of course, the puckish Bunuel can’t resist undercutting and deflating this dream “logic”. Just as it starts to seem like the trapped party guests are engaged in mass delusional hysteria (one has a vision of a detached hand), we get a peek outside the mansion, and see that crowds and police have gathered. The “spiritually/morally trapped” guests are actually in a tangible but unresolvable hostage-like situation – no one can get inside the house, either.
The Exterminating Angel is like watching Bunuel’s subconscious unspool before our eyes, and the ending sequence is one of the most toxic satires of religion I’ve ever seen. Every black-and-white image in the film is saturated with a feverish immediacy; many scenes have the anything-goes self-awareness of the Marx Brothers or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker; and the performances are bizarrely pitch-perfect.
It’s especially bizarre because we never get to “know” any of the characters; no one ever emerges into a complete or even remotely sympathetic figure, and yet Bunuel has a buried empathy for them that almost matches their latent savagery. For the image-conscious bourgeois partygoer, it’s a savagery that only seems to emerge deep into the night.