An artist is not one who creates meaning; an artist is one who creates possible meaning — such is Spanish director Luis Bunuel. Whether or not Bunuel knows what his 1962 surrealist drama The Exterminating Angel is about, doesn’t matter. Does Bunuel know why twenty guests, who arrive at a party, are suddenly inexplicably unable to leave? Maybe not, but I think you do.
The guests of an upper-class party arrive… twice. They ascend the marble stairs of a gated mansion… twice. The joke, of course, they won’t be able to leave. They become trapped in the living room, but why? There’s nothing blocking their way. They should be able to leave. Their obstacles are not physical, but psychological, and unclear. Time passes, maybe days, months. They resort to violence, illogical attitudes, and unreasonable faith. They form jobs and communities. The roles of the world are filled: the sick, the bad, the good, the leaders, the followers. Hallucinations, suicide, why can’t they leave? A crowd emerges outside. The police congregate: “let’s get a big speaker so they can hear us, and we can talk to them.” Why would they do that? Why not just go inside? The joke, of course, they can’t.
What makes all these people unable to do what they want? Conformity, hospitality, society? They’re not unable to leave; they’re unwilling. The others aren’t leaving; they should follow suit. They’re humans, social beings. They follow form, they fit the mold, and if others aren’t doing something, why would they?
The film was banned in Russia because the idea of people not being allowed to “leave a party” was considered anti-government, and they’re right. This film is Bunuel’s most subtle take down of religion and structure. That alone is what makes it a great film, but what makes it a masterpiece is that it doesn’t have to be anti-government. You can interpret this film in any number of ways. That’s art; that’s The Exterminating Angel.