Exterminating Angel Review

A wealthy couple are holding a lavish dinner party at their mansion for 20 guests, all rich and distinguished people. It’s an unusual party, since in addition to the choice of exotic dishes and an unconventional ordering of courses, the hosts have arranged for some strange forms of entertainment. However, when one of the guests fails to find a servant falling and spreading the first course over the carpet, they think better of introducing the live bear and sheep that are under the kitchen table.

Despite the importance of the party and the status of those invited, the servants seem to be keen to leave early on a variety of excuses and are summarily dismissed by their employers, leaving only the butler to attend to their needs. The guests however find it much more difficult to leave at the end of the evening. After the dinner and entertainment, they one by one settle down in the living room, making themselves comfortable for the night. Several days later they are still there, unable to leave the room. They are completely aware that their behaviour is unusual, but are unable to do anything about it.

There in a line, you have a summary of the point of Luis Buñuel’s wicked and surreal satire of the upper classes. Nobility, doctors and freemasons, they all stick together, each imitating the behaviour of one another and afraid to make the slightest gesture that could seem inappropriate by others of their class. So caught up are they in these rules and mannerisms that none of them seem to be able to be able to think for themselves or act in an individual manner without considering how it will be looked on by the others. If one person does commit an action that is deemed to be in breach of standard etiquette however, the others will quickly follow, ostensibly to prevent attention being drawn to the person who has committed the indiscretion – but in reality they know that they are no better and stink like the rest of them. Buñuel of course takes this sheep-like tendency to extremes in The Exterminating Angel, to the extent that since one person is unable to leave the room, the others all follow suit. They are so detached from reality that they can’t remember what it is like to think for themselves. Even when a solution is eventually found, they soon find themselves trapped in another sheep-like situation. There is no escape from their stupidity.

Like most of the director’s satires of the pillars of society, the church and nobility in films like Viridiana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Milky Way, the broad swipes of Exterminating Angel are hardly subtle – when referring to sheep-like behaviour, Buñuel rather brilliantly will show an actual flock of sheep on the screen - but it’s consequently no less enjoyable for the almost childish glee with which these notions are undertaken, making them surreal and irreverently funny in a way that surely influenced the Monty Python team (as in for example "Upper Class Twit of the year"). It would all be rather silly were it not for the fact that some of the more ludicrous tenets and behaviour of the targets, indulging in narcotics, superstitions and Masonic rituals, fully merit the lampooning they receive at Buñuel’s hand, and he fully gives it to them.

Exterminating Angel is released in the UK by Arrow. The barebones DVD is in PAL format and is not region encoded.

The print used for this DVD transfer is certainly not in pristine condition and shows its age, but neither does it have any serious problems. There are a reasonable range of greyscale tones, but the finer details are not there, the image looking soft and overly bright with heightened contrast, losing detail particularly in wider shots. Grain is visible but not excessive and there are no serious marks on the print, although flaws do show up in a few frames.

The audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It’s fairly rough and crackly, particularly in louder passages – which is evidently not often in a film like this. A few peals of thunder however soon show up its limitations. There is some wavering and wobble in the background, but overall dialogue is quite clear and distinct.

English subtitles are in a white font and are optional.

There are no extra features on the DVD.

Exterminating Angel is one of Buñuel’s classic films, another merciless attack on the hypocritical pillars of society who deem themselves worthy of leading, but are in reality completely detached from the world of ordinary people, caught up in their own manners, rituals and customs. The situation may seem a simple one and one that, since it mostly takes place in a single room, seems fairly limited – but Buñuel introduces many familiar elements, a sense of feverish horror, sensuous eroticism, a great deal of symbolism and obscure ideas, all of it adding up to a remarkable and thought-provoking concoction. Arrow’s DVD is about as barebones as it could be, with a transfer that is nothing more than basic and no extra features, but it’s an adequate presentation nonetheless.

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