A review requested by David Q, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The Exterminating Angel, from 1962, was the first film directed by Luis Buñuel after his splashy return to his native Spain to make the magnificently poisonous satire Viridiana (whose official condemnation by the Franco government sent Buñuel packing back to Mexico, where he'd spent the last decade and change), and that is really the only bad thing about it. Both films cover roughly the same ground: the savagery of the Spanish bourgeoisie, the debasing dogma of the government-allied Catholic Church. Viridiana just does it better - as indeed, it does everything better than almost every movie. That's not to say that The Exterminating Angel is anything less than superb, nor that it fails to be thoroughly lacerating in its own condemnation of the self-indulgent monstrosity of the moneyed classes. And there is, anyway, one way in which The Exterminating Angel does manage to improve upon its predecessor: it brings back a healthy dose of the morbid Surrealism that had been such an important part of the director's career-making films in his youth, inaugurating the final phase of his career as a multinational creator of strange fantasies.

It is a monstrous complicated film, but it starts off seeming easy. As the story (co-conceived with Mexican screenwriter Luis Alcoriza, in the last of his several collaborations with the director). Edmondo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucía (Lucy Gallardo) are hosting a dinner party for assorted upscale people, when their kitchen staff leaves for no discernible reason. After dinner, to the hosts' confused annoyance, all of the guests start to bed down in the music room, where one woman, Blanca (Patricia de Morelos), has just played piano. The next morning, the guests all find that they won't leave the music room. Not can't - they simply lack the will to do so, even though they all seem terribly distressed by this fact. As the days go by, and food and water dwindle, the guests' tempers start to flare and their behavior grows increasingly savage. Eventually, the cops arrive, but find themselves unable to enter the mansion.

Obviously, none of this is to be taken literally, though it's one of the greater pleasures of The Exterminating Angel that its surface-level plot is weird enough to watch it for the sheer joy of Surreal farce. It's all rather too scabrous to be funny, but it still might anyway be Buñuel's funniest film. The giddiness of watching as the guests fall apart - which they start to do almost immediately - has the ebullience of a good absurd comedy even in the absence of jokes or laughs. I shouldn't say "in the absence of jokes". There are many jokes, in fact, they're just presented in unconventional form. The reveal that a bear and two sheep are hanging around in the dining room, for example: there's not a blessed thing that's funny about it, just thoroughly, aggressively weird; and yet the way Buñuel stages the moment is such that the arbitrariness is intensified - the bear just shows up in one shot, unannounced, not in any way stressed by the editing or framing or dialogue - intensified up to the point where it's suddenly very funny indeed, or may so anti-funny that it comes back around to being funny.

But even while it's funny, the humor is bitter and bilious, coming from a place of severest nastiness. The film takes dead aim at the behavior of the bourgeoisie, not perhaps going into such fine detail as in Viridiana or the later The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (the latter of which plays like this film's mirror image: instead of dinner guests who can't leave the party, it presents dinner guests who can never start eating), but compensating with potency what it lacks in delicacy. The plot is, at heart, a case study in watching the little black souls of the upper crust stripped bare: when stuck in an untenable situation that puts a great strain on their ability to survive, they respond with panic, depression, and bestial cruelty. The last is the most important. These are not nice people. They seem elegant and sophisticated and all that, but their actions, and even before that their words, reveal an entirely inhuman world view. "I think the lower classes are less sensitive to pain" muses one woman, Rita (Patricia Morán) at one point, and that's merely the most open statement of utter contempt for the downtrodden uttered in a film where class-based tribalism is visible in every scene, damn near, but these people even turn against each other. Petty gossip, ignoring the suffering of cancer victims, just generally screeching at each other; there's not much about anybody that we can rightly say is admirable, and Buñuel mocks the whole cast throughout. It's all a simple exercise in depicting the whole class as prone to ugly, hypocritical actions and pathetically terrified, mindless responses to anything that even marginally threatens the comfort of their lives and the elaborate system of social lies underpinning it (the horror the characters feel at breaking the rules of etiquette is comically overstated, as though they can imagine nothing worse - and indeed they probably can't not even in the middle of their ordeal). Their buffoonery in the face of a problem that seems to have no cause but their own neuroses is the source of most of the film's comedy, as it gleefully indicts the entire cultural system that exploits and brutalises the lower classes that are so purposefully banished from the party at the start of the film.

I suppose if you took a notebook and made diagrams and wrote down every last beat of the film, you could undoubtedly draw out each and every bit of symbolism Buñuel plugged in (some of it is very obvious - it takes no degree in literary theory to guess what the line of sheep filing into a church at the end represents, for example), but that doesn't seem much fun to me. Far better to simply let the film slam into you with its impeccably-staged series of farcical broadsides, loaded dialogue, and visual wit. The film is sometimes called "theatrical", I guess on the grounds that it mostly takes place in one set, but that's hardly fair: the juxtaposition of images is reliably purposeful, the intrusion of absurdity into a realistic setting achieved through entirely cinematic means. And that's to say nothing of the powerfully disordered marriage of sound and image near the end, or the editing trick of repeating certain scenes to extend out moments and amplify the sense of purposeless meandering that marks the characters. It is a wholly brilliant film, literate and visual at one and the same time, hitting us hard in the gut with its theme while also layering that them into its complex intellectual argument. I'm not about to go ranking the work of such a vigorous iconoclast as Buñuel, but by any measure, The Exterminating Angel is one of his the key films in his career, and one of the most essential pieces of cinematic art from the fertile decade of the 1960s