ScreenPrism: In Exterminating Angel (1962), why can't the guests leave?

Professor Julian Cornell: They can’t leave because their social customs and values are so rigid, and because they follow the herd. They present themselves as these individuals of power and authority and prestige, and they’re not. They’re just following along. They’re not horrible people, and to the movie’s credit, nobody is shown to be a terrible human being. But they’re stuck.

They can’t leave because they can’t escape this prison that they’ve built for themselves, that society’s built to establish and maintain order. But also notice that nobody can get in. Nobody can get in, and nobody can get out. It’s a prison.

The Marxist element that comes in, what really starts the whole chain of events, is that the servant leaves. At the beginning, the servant class leaves, and the dining guests are helpless. They don’t think they are, but they are. They are completely dependent on society operating in a certain way.

The thing that holds the society together is the hierarchical relationships. Once the servants leave, and those structures are broken, all bets are off. That’s when they can’t adapt. They have internalized all these rules so much that they are just stuck.

I use the example: did you ever go to a party, and it’s a really terrible party, and you really want to go home, but you don’t want to be the first person to leave? Nobody wants to be the first person to leave a party, so you stay longer than you want. Well, imagine that everybody feels the same way as you, so nobody leaves. This movie takes that to its natural conclusion. Because what’s the rule that says you can’t leave a party if you’re tired and you want to go home? It’s an unwritten rule—that’s how you’re supposed to behave. This is the bourgeois morality, which is that it’s all a show. So you don’t want to be seen, because that’s an incorrect show, but somebody has to be the first person to leave. Nobody wants to be that person because then you are demonstrating some resistance to the way things are supposed to be, and you don’t want that.

The cast of Buñuel's Exterminating Angel (1962)

So everybody gets stuck by this morality that says everything is an act, and everything is a performance, an idea is foregrounded in the movie. Buñuel talks (in the Criterion DVD booklet) about how terrible the acting is, but it’s terrible on purpose. It’s a very showy presentation.

SP: For example, when the woman throws the glass at the window with no provocation. It feels like a moment from a dream.

JC: Because it’s a random act. Then their explanation for it is just racist: a “passing Jew.” And you’re supposed to say, “Wait, what?” It makes no sense, and it shows the way that these people think: they think racist thoughts. Underneath this decorum, something happens, and there’s the racism. To Buñuel, this is a joke, and this is ironic. It’s not funny, but it’s a joke about their morality. That’s their interpretive framework.

SP: It also underlines the randomness of the rules and the behaviors they value: for example, how they decide the woman is interesting because she threw the glass or how they laugh at the servant for falling.

JC: They assume that when the servant falls it must be a performance because that can’t happen, and they have such a rigid way of viewing the world.

After I screen the movie, I always ask people, “Did you feel like you were stuck in this room?” That’s how successful the movie is: you feel what they’re feeling. You feel trapped. The framing is not claustrophobic, like it could be or like it would be in an Ingmar Bergman movie. The framing is open. On purpose. Why is the framing open? Because the possibility always exists that you could just leave. They could just leave. But you can’t. That’s not the way the world works.

SP: So while it feels surreal, it’s not really a magical force holding them there. It’s a social force that takes on the proportions and power of a magical force.

JC: Right, because they’ve internalized it. It’s all external to them, and they’ve internalized it, which is how a Freudian film critic would view it. It’s an internalization of social forces and suppressing of desires and needs.

SP: They start to believe it’s a true reality that can’t be crossed.

JC: Meanwhile, [all sense of social propriety] crumbles so fast because it requires so much psychic energy to maintain these facades. Once something happens, once there’s a crack, everything falls apart.

Julian Cornell is a Lecturer in Media Studies at Queens College – CUNY, where he teaches Film Genres, National Cinemas and Film Analysis. He also teaches Film at New York University in the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television in the Tisch School of the Arts, and Media at the Gallatin School For Individualized Study. He has also taught Film Studies at Wesleyan University. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, an M.A. in Film and Television from the University of California, Los Angeles and his PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University. Prior to teaching, he worked in Scheduling and Network Programming at HBO and Cinemax, and in independent film production. His primary research and teaching areas are American, Scandinavian and Japanese cinema and genre cinema, including disaster movies, science fiction, children’s films, animation and documentary.