Otras Inquisiciones (The Exterminating Angel)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 145; July 1963.

The Exterminating Angel

I remember this sally of Rohmer’s: “Moullet, I know why you love Buñuel. It’s because both of you are slackers.” The greatest compliment of my life.

The title was Rivette’s idea. He told me that it was the title of a publication by a certain Borges. So, I read Borges afterwards.

This film, among the strangest and most audacious in the history of cinema, could’ve been made only on the momentum imparted by Viridiana, grand prize at Cannes in 1961, and, it seems, Last Year in Marienbad, grand prize at Acapulco in December 1961, awarded just before the shooting of this film in February-March 1962. Not that Resnais influenced Buñuel in any way. But the commercial success of Marienbad, combined with the similarity of characters, setting, the related mystery and the apparent incomprehensibility, allowed Buñuel to imagine a commercial future for his old project The Castaways of Providence Street.

The accidental resemblance to Marienbad stops at this superficial level since the two films are as different as they can be: one is extra-temporal and extra-social; the other is a testimony to our times and our society. One describes the psychological world; the other describes the real world and, if the subjective has a prominent role to play in it, we cannot appreciate the work without resorting to certain fundamental, objective and unquestionable interpretations. Finally, if Marienbad is a point of departure, The Exterminating Angel is a point of arrival in cinema history as well as in the career of its creator.

Even so, it’s important that the viewer is thrown into the film without any warning. The work seeks to be like the life that man encounters at birth without any reference whatsoever. And any warning, even an evasive one, places the meaning of the work in a particular territory that can’t be confirmed as its own before the end of the film. Is the film a materially-explicable prank played by the Nobiles? We can suppose so when the lady of the house tells her servant not to let the bear into the living room as planned because one of the guests doesn’t like jokes. Or when the valet appears to deliberately spill the stew. Is it a prank played by Buñuel? We could think so. Many people think so too and believe, not without reason, that it discredits the film. But that’s to forget that a prank can have deeper meaning. The greatest artists, including the most modest and the most personal, like to conceal the depth and the personal quality of their work under the guise of a prank. But, here, the fundamental explanation isn’t a prank; it’s one of the secondary explanations. Is it an intimate reverie like Marienbad, a symbolic, parabolic or a metaphoric film? And which symbols, which parable and which metaphor are we talking about?

The viewer’s uncertainty and hesitation produce in him the anxiety that haunts him every day and from which the discovery of the Fundamental Secret in the very last shots delivers him. The film’s structure hence models itself on the developmental structure of the human mind, from childhood to maturity. Maturity is an individual conquest. No doubt that, to arrive there, one must make a personal effort of breaking through to the Secret that the film’s apparent incomprehensibility and its prankish appearance weakly guard.

The Exterminating Angel is hence a detective film, the greatest of detective films, since its object is not the discovery of the culprit – although, here too, at the end we discover a culprit the nature of whose identity is crucial – but the discovery of the nature of our human and social condition and its motivations. Through the secret of the enigma and the ascent to knowledge, we discover the secret to happiness.

This need for a protective prank explains Buñuel’s attitude: “The best explanation of The Exterminating Angel is that, reasonably, there is none.” There is none, reasonably, but there are some, unreasonably: the film being cosmic and synthetic, it contains the rational and the irrational at once, one inside the other. Reasonable explanations that we are right in giving apply to a world alien to reason. Like the ending of El and Nazarin, even L’âge d’or and Archibald, the whole of The Exterminating Angel can be explained by a mix of reason and affectivity, demonstration and poetry, which allows Buñuel to declare that there’s no conscious intention here. In his works, reason is linked to instinct, and that’s why his film is the first truly abstract film and why it remains lively at the same time. The Exterminating Angel is the first screen adaptation of The Spirit of the Laws (or of Discourse on the Method, or Ethics, or Principia, as you wish), but it’s The Spirit of the Laws by way of Henry Miller.

The Exterminating Angel indeed has all the trappings of a theorem, but it’s not one, it doesn’t aspire to be one, as Buñuel mentions. It’s that there’s no logical continuity in the meaning of its actions, no dramatic scaffolding at the level of characters and their relationships or their oppositions. The work is made of straight lines – essential elements, relatively reasonable and explicable – interspersed with several broken line segments – hard to explain, secondary elements – that seem to contradict the former on a purely logical level, but reinforce them on a superior level, firstly because their meaning is similar and secondly because their lack of a superficial relationship to a theorem eliminates all impression of didacticism.

These straight lines can be defined with the help of two keys, which are also the only keys to the film and which offer an unquestionable and objective character foreign to the rest of the film.

The first is that the impossibility of leaving (or entering, which amounts to the same) is to be explained not by a physical reason, but by the absence of will in a human being living in a particular milieu, a definite society, who can never follow a personal line of conduct, nor stray away from beaten paths.

The second has to do with a metaphor based on the rule of cross-multiplication: just as they are subjected to a slow and complete degradation of themselves when they can’t leave the Nobiles’ residence, the guests will be victims of a similar degradation when they can’t leave the church. In other words, what takes place at the Nobile residence, in fact, takes place at the church. The fear of censorship seems to have necessitated this metaphor, avoided in L’âge d’or, which was a more biased but less disguised adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom.

This rule of cross-multiplication is made clear by the impression the viewer has of both sections of the film and their mutual relationship. The two sections, by construction, are placed on the same level, with the difference that the first is all about length and precision while the second is about the allusive and imprecise force of its brevity, the evocative mystery proper to its elliptical nature. If we indicate the living-room section by L and the church section by C, we obtain the following relation, whose numbered quality doesn’t seem to take away from artistic reality too much:

Since L = C, we have,

L (Degradation x 84’) = C [(21 x Degradation) x 4’]

The elliptical brutality of the last section and the speed with which we arrive at the renewal of the phenomenon of avolition gives us the impression that it’s going to return with ten or twenty times the force.

Is the relationship between the two sections located on the level of a superior and meaningful reality that one Cahiers writer called Brechtian or on the level of concrete reality, of psychological evolution? Is there an evolution to be traced in the alienated characters who liberate themselves only to find themselves in another, more serious alienation? Here, we are reduced to interpretation. The two possibilities seem to be well-founded in their own way. The first section of the film tells us that man has no escape if he locks himself up in society’s rules, opposed to the imperative rules of nature, which can manifest themselves within society’s rules only in a barbaric and secret form in direct contradiction with the spirit of these social rules.

The second part reveals the profound cause of these social rules: religion; this time, the exterminating angel of the Bible has turned against the faithful. The only way to escape this grip is to take a step back, by a kind of conjuration, to erase the past through the purification of passions Aristotle spoke about. It’s necessary to pull out evil by its roots so that purification can happen, not at the branch level, namely social reforms which are necessarily ineffective, but at the level of religious reformation, without which the degradation of man will persist, just as social troubles will persist outside, as the last shot clearly indicates.

This message isn’t wholly new as an idea. It’s simple, unsophisticated. It might seem extraneous to us who believe ourselves to be free of religion’s stranglehold. But the messages of Griffith, Welles – whose Rosebud is very similar – are of the same simplicity and they are also biased. What counts, in fact, is not the meaning or the intrinsic and discernible value of the message, but the force with which the filmmaker expresses it and his success in making us accept it as he expresses it on screen.

Now, the presentation of the film in the form of a rebus, justified by the mysterious character of concrete reality, compels the viewer, through the same process by which he has recognized the meaning of the film, to “accept” it as the product of an intimate collaboration with the filmmaker. Had the facts been presented more crudely, without any ellipse, we wouldn’t have bought into it since our participation wouldn’t have been required. So much so that the rigour of “instinctive reasoning” here is admirable and flawless: in eighty minutes, all the various forms of man’s alienation and degradation are envisaged, to the point of making us completely forget that they could be biased. We get the impression of a synthetic and cosmic study, too perfect to be false or even incomplete, even less susceptible to be replaced.

The broken line segments pose a problem: isn’t the outside world, represented by the servants, the people, and the police, also alienated since it suffers from an inverse but nevertheless comparable avolition? Aren’t there other parallel, or opposed, forms of alienation taking shape under the influence of these social rules?

The filmmaker’s dark humour manifests itself in many dissimilar forms. It’s either expressed by the characters or it is expressed by the filmmaker at the expense of his characters, whether they are masters or servants, when they claim to make us laugh.

Is it the raft of the Medusa or the ark of Noah, whose sheep were also destined for consumption, in the last shot, or do they evoke the herd of the faithful to be hoodwinked? Triple ambiguity.

Even when they contradict each other, these elements have a half-logical, half-affective meaning that has nothing symbolic about it.

The Exterminating Angel is the only film where there can be no symbols: a symbol is the sign of something abstract located in a concrete reality. Now, everything here is located on a meaningful reality which claims to take the appearance of concrete reality only to satisfy a dramatic necessity – the viewer must make the effort himself to return the film back to the level of reality it’s located in – and to respond to the demands of a modesty which is one of the dominant qualities of the work.

In contrast to Les Abysses, where Papatakis endlessly repeats the same shocking images to the point that they don’t shock anyone anymore, in The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel softens all the diverse actions which, on reflection, turn out to be of monstrous oddity. He arrives there respecting the hard times specific to all life, hard times that are not dead times because they are nonetheless bestowed with meaning. He arrives there eliminating all dramatization and often resorting to a suggestive and less inhumane ellipse.

It’s that there is no misanthropy in Buñuel. Even men alienated by clerical society aren’t contemptible and their efforts, either to liberate themselves or to save their dignity within these social rules, are evoked here with an attention, a respect devoid of any contempt, with an almost-Christian humility.

It is indeed remarkable that the most anti-religious of filmmakers (The Exterminating Angel, in view of its various mocking titles, its construction right from the credits on, and its meaning, is an essentially religious film, but also the most powerful work ever created against religion) – the most anti-religious in “content”, let’s make it clear – is one of the most Christian in “form”. Following Nazarin (1958) and Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel is the third part of the triptych based on the principle of the Christian parable which, under the guise of a contemplative chronicle, justifies this perpetual, distant and inquisitive aerial survey of the camera and places the film on a superior level, that of facts and characters, which sometimes surprises the viewer, accustomed as he is to the actor, to the point of getting bored or falling asleep, with good reason or otherwise, before these chronicles.

The acting style and the simple, monotonic diction so dear to Buñuel seem to coincide perfectly with the principle of the parable film and the principle of repetition particular to a subject exempt almost in its entirely from any progression. The convergent accumulations produce an unseen poetry of reiteration without a particular shot ever being redundantly used. Taken to its conclusion, this poetry attains the level of fascination1.

Buñuel’s power thus lies in producing emotion and in ending up with the greatest efficiency through unusual means that are apparently at loggerheads with the film’s goal: a classical cinema based on acting and aesthetics gives way to a modern cinema based, as I see it, on the Idea and its multiple poetic possibilities, whose success, rare amidst many failed attempts, is of an incomparable degree and proportional to the originality and the difficulty of the undertaking.

For those who blindly consider this new art as the sign of an impossibility of expressing oneself through means more common to the “essence of cinema”, let’s remember that this definitive film, third part of Buñuel’s triptych of parables and third part of his dark humour triptych following El (1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz (1956), also reprises certain para-surrealist themes and reveals in the dream sequences a visionary power and an imagination comparable to those of Murnau’s Faust and applied to an entirely new material in the rest of the film. That’s why, better than Faust, The Exterminating Angel constitutes one of the most sublime creations of human genius.

 

1Contrary to its reputation, The Exterminating Angel is not difficult to understand, it’s difficult to like: our admiration is a product of the perfection of a “dramaturgy of de-dramatization” as original as it is discreet in its effectiveness. In this hardly-treaded domain, the construction is of an invisible rigour and audacity comparable to that of The Young One in the classical domain. In the American pure cinema, we were frequently aware of the ideas behind shot changes; here, a similar invention takes place with the change of shots, which are in fact dictated by ideas of succession of ideas, by ideas of succession of subjects.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]