How The Exterminating Angel Incisively Critiques the Wealthy - VRGyani News and Media

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

How The Exterminating Angel Incisively Critiques the Wealthy

Modern cinema is littered with movies tackling the urgently relevant topic of economic inequality and class disparity. Particularly in recent years, projects ranging from Parasite to Knives Out to Ready or Not have garnered not just critical acclaim but captivated general audiences with their insightful gaze into examining and critiquing the excesses of the upper class. However, not every 21st-century attempt to tackle this topic has ended up being as thoughtful as the works of Bong Joon-Ho.

Productions like Elysium or The Platform have ended up coming up significantly short in using the medium of cinema to provide effective commentary on the rich. These kinds of movies frustrate in just how close they come to saying something substantive on the wealthy before slinking back and settling for conventionality. Strangely, if modern-day films like these want tips on how to improve on approaching this topic, they should look to the past. Specifically, they should look to a 1962 film entitled The Exterminating Angel by director Luis Buñuel.

From the very get-go, Buñuel starts schooling lesser films on how to critique the upper-class, as he conveys the detached nature of the wealthy protagonists through their casual comments comparing people in lower economic classes to animals and being lesser-than. All these rich folks have come together for a party hosted by Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucía (Lucy Gallardo). At one point in the night, everybody congregates in one room…and then finds themselves unable to leave. At first, it’s just because they’re all tired and decide to spend the night in this room.

Soon, though, it becomes apparent to all the partygoers that no matter how hard they try, they can’t leave this room. Some unknown force is keeping them all contained within these four walls. This instigates the surrealist part of this surrealist horror film, as the main characters grapple with one inexplicable scenario after another in their trapped confines. This trait alone already puts The Exterminating Angel above so many other cinematic commentaries on class disparity. Buñuel isn’t afraid to embrace a detachment to reality that’s necessary if one is going to properly realize the truly out-of-control nature of the upper class.

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Modern projects like Joker that poke and prod at the topic of economic inequality root their stories in gritty realism to make them seem rooted in everyday reality. Unfortunately, they end up muting their stories and the actions of the wealthy to an extreme degree. Thus, these movies seem out of step from a reality where billionaires engage in competitions to get to space while millions of people have no money to buy food. In contrast, Buñuel’s surreal story that offers no concrete explanations for what’s going on matches not only the inexplicable behavior of the rich. It also offers a mirror for how often in reality the lower-class are suddenly adversely impacted by the wealthiest members of society for no real reason. Now the rich are stuck in the same state of confusion as the everyday folks they hurt.

This embracing of the unusual extends to the filmmaking of The Exterminating Angel, another trait separating it from other modern cinematic takedowns of the rich. Those recent pieces of cinema frequently employ the continuity style of editing. This dominant form of editing conveys, in certain projects, that what we’re watching is the “normal” state of the world. It’s a fitting approach for many stories, but if employed carelessly, this form of editing, combined with lethargic directing, can have toxic effects. Specifically, it can capture the bourgeoisie in a manner that subliminally suggests to the viewer that this is normal. Exorbitant wealth is just part and parcel of reality, after all, the conventional editing is doing nothing to suggest what we’re watching should be abrasive to the eye.

The Exterminating Angel, meanwhile, delivers plenty of pieces of unusual editing, not to mention blocking and camera angles, that visually accentuate the surrealism of the movie as well as the idea that we’re not watching average members of society. The very presence of such extremely rich individuals is about as unusual as the inexplicable scenario they’ve now found themselves trapped in. Buñuel embraces a style of editing in scenes set within this room that’s jagged and sometimes intentionally disorienting, particularly during a dream sequence involving a disembodied hand.

That lucid scene is a microcosm of the most unusual filmmaking techniques utilized in The Exterminating Angel and they serve as a startling contrast to other segments in the story. Specifically, they’re worlds away from the visual aesthetic of brief cutaways to the outside world, where relatives of the trapped and everyday onlookers congregate. These engage in more traditional forms of editing and wider shots. Once the camera cuts back inside to the cramped close-up shots and abrupt editing, it becomes more apparent than ever what Buñuel is up to visually.

By providing a clear division between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in terms of camerawork and editing, Buñuel is subliminally suggesting to the viewer what populations they should consider “normal” and which they should consider “aberrations”. Such multifaceted approaches that utilize the tiniest details of filmmaking to accentuate an attitude towards the wealthy is dearly missing in many modern films about economic inequality that leave all their commentary on the surface.

This facet of The Exterminating Angel goes hand-in-hand with how the movie views the behavior of the rich. Certain 21st-century pop culture properties, like Arrested Development, filter the detached nature of the wealthy through an aloof demeanor. That can be fun to watch in certain contexts, but the widespread use of this tactic defangs pop culture depictions of the wealthy and their abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, The Exterminating Angel doesn’t hold back in depicting the wealthy as immediately cracking under the first sign of pressure and resorting to turning on one another.

Even before they were all trapped in a room together, Buñuel’s screenplay goes through great pains to depict the individual party guests as talking badly about one another behind each other’s backs and having only their own self-interests at heart. This is especially apparent when compared to the behavior of the servants, who look out for one another and have a deeper sense of camaraderie. Once everyone gets trapped in a room, Buñuel doesn’t depict them transforming into monstrous people detached from their earlier personas. What was barely contained under the surface has just now taken over. There is real teeth in Buñuel’s depiction of the wealthy as they become as animalistic as the gaggle of sheep and bear cub they tried to control early on in their party.

All of these qualities add up to make The Exterminating Angel something that can still resonate as topical and scathing six decades after its release, but it’s an epilogue that shows just how thoughtful Buñuel’s approach to this topic is. Though the surviving members of that party do manage to figure out how to escape the room, the story isn’t over just yet. A closing scene depicts a church ceremony that concludes with nobody willing to leave. Everyone is just deciding to let someone else leave first. The inexplicable situation has now shifted locations to suggest an even greater scope of social commentary.

With this epilogue, Buñuel is suggesting the corruption found in the rich is not the only instance of powerful pockets of society exerting too much control in society. Now he’s taking aim at religious institutions, which also tend to cast a judgment eye on those “beneath” them and showing that they’ll now be trapped without rhyme or reason. Just because those rich partygoers made it out of that one room doesn’t mean corruption in society has been solved. Compare that to the conclusion of Elysium, where the distribution of magical medical beds that can, among other uses, cure cancer seems to solve societal inequality. That simplified vision of corruption is eschewed in The Exterminating Angel in favor of something more in touch with the horrors of reality.

The Exterminating Angel is such an expertly crafted indictment of the upper crust that it shouldn’t be a surprise it would also end with a tag that expands the scope of its frustrations considerably. More modern movies exploring corruption in the rich could stand to take more than a few cues from such an endlessly creative motion picture.

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