Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Exterminating Angel and the repetition compulsion

In my previous post about The Exterminating Angel, I noted 8 repetitions: 
- The group arrive twice. 
- The 2 female employees try to leave twice. 
- The host gives the same toast twice. 
- The line about someone going bald is repeated. 
- The last part of the evening is replicated. 
- There are about 2 scenes of outsiders being unable to enter the house. 
- The absurd thing at the house is repeated at the church. 
- The scene of the sheep going towards the “imprisoned” people in the room is replicated at the end with the church. 
Last night I watched the film again and noticed another 3 repetitions: 
- 2 men, Cristian and Eduardo, greet each other 3 times, each time differently. 
- The exchange about the dishevelled look by the brother and sister is repeated by the couple in love. 
- A woman sees a hand of a dead man pop out of a closet, and later hallucinates that a hand moves out of the closet. 
The social and political satire aspect of the film is easy to see, but what do the repetitions mean, other than creating a surrealistic atmosphere? 
Here is a brilliant psychoanalytic reading of the film and the repetition compulsion:
Look at this paragraph: 
“Buñuel introduced the ideas of repetition and the expected and unexpected early on in the dinner party itself. The host, Edmundo Nobile makes a gracious toast to Silvia (Rosa Elena Durgel) who provided the opera they have just seen. The guests all graciously echo the toast. Then Nobile makes the very same toast again but this time, to his puzzlement, the guests ignore him—the predictable has become unpredictable. The hostess Lucia (Lucy Gallardo) tells her guests she is going to vary the usual order of courses with a Maltese dish. The waiter comes in with the platter but stumbles, falls, and spills the food all over. The guests laugh delightedly because it is “quite unexpected,” but one woman comments that “Lucia has a style all her own,” and the other guests praise the fall as though this were all her characteristic plan. Buñuel is asking us to notice the difference between what is accidental and unpredictable and what is characteristic and predictable.” 
The last point is particularly interesting: the fall is accidental and unpredictable, but the guests perceive it as characteristic and predictable, because Lucia is predicted to be unpredictable. 
As for how the repetitions have to do with the film, the author argues: 
“Like any good surrealist, Buñuel represents the psychological fact in physical terms. Being one’s repetitive self is like being boxed in. You are in a cage, the cage of your character—or, in this film, a drawing-room you can’t get out of. Notice that the characters’ confinement is mental, not physical. They go up to the exit doorway and make excuses for not being able to go through. They are just like us. When our character compels us to repeat, we justify what we are doing. “There I go again”—but I go; I don’t not-go. I repeat and find reasons to justify repeating.” 
The characters get worse over time, as they become hungrier and more frustrated, but they do remain characteristically themselves throughout the film. Considering each character in isolation, they only have a few lines that they keep saying over and over again: the “nervous” brother keeps saying he can’t stand it and hates everybody, the grumpy man keeps saying that it’s the fault of Edmundo the host, the doctor keeps saying that they have to use reason, and so on. 
Earlier I wrote The Exterminating Angel could be seen as an allegory of the bourgeoisie being so privileged and self-centred that they’re cut off from the outside world. This is another interpretation: we all are in a cage, the cage of our character. 
The author elaborates his psychoanalytic reading of the film: 
“Buñuel takes his physical representation of Freudian ideas one step further in the releasing of these imprisoned characters. Some of the ways psychotherapy works are through “regression” and “transference.” Lying on the couch, the patient regresses toward childhood and childish patterns, as these guests do. Then follows “transference.” (Indeed the word occurs in the film when the doctor explains quite correctly to his amorous patient Leonora that her passionate desire for him is “transference.”) For instance, a patient, having fought with her parents all through childhood, now fights with another authority-figure, the therapist. She has transferred her feelings toward her parents to the therapist. By becoming conscious of this trait in the safe environment of the consulting room, the patient can perhaps replace an unconscious compulsion to repeat her squabbling with a conscious decision to repeat or not to repeat it. And the hope is that the patient can exercise this conscious control in life, not just with the therapist.
Buñuel embodies in the film this therapeutic recovery from helpless, unconscious repetition to conscious intention quite literally when he releases the party guests from their confinement. “The Valkyrie,” Leticia (Silvia Pinal) has the pianist Blanca (Patricia de Morelos) repeat her playing of the “Toccata in A,” a famous piece by the eighteenth-century Italian composer Paradisi. (Surely performing a memorized piece is as repetitious an act as can be, and the name Paradisi makes a nice contrast to the hell they’re in.) But then Leticia has the guests stand in the same places and deliberately repeat the very comments they made after this same music weeks before. They don’t just repeat, they consciously repeat—and suddenly they are freed! Buñuel has his imprisoned bourgeois enact a miniature psychotherapy.” 
That argument is rather convincing. 
On the end of the film the author comments: 
“At the end of the film, the guests from the middle of the film and a congregation and the priests enact the repetitive rituals of catholicism. Then, as if to underscore the meaning of the repetition, neither priests nor worshipers can leave the church. They are trapped as in the drawing-room, but now we are seeing a whole society, not just some dinner guests, confined in its character, its repetitive rituals and, to Buñuel, superstitious rituals. Outside, soldiers drive off citizens trying to enter the church as earlier the police stood between people outside and people inside the mansion. This bourgeois, religious character will persist and be sustained at all costs. And in the final shot, a flock of sheep enter the church, surely an ironic comment on the mindlessness of the religious rituals and the class structure so savagely enforced. Is this a “flock” seeking the Good Shepherd? Or is this a society of sheep blindly following their leader (Franco?) into endless, meaningless, and cruel repetitions? Or are these sacrificial victims like the sheep in the mansion?” 
You may agree, you may have a different take on the film—The Exterminating Angel is such a rich, multiple-layered work, it can have so many different interpretations.


  1. Di,

    A link to the operatic version of The Exterminating Angel.

    1. That is strange. Haha.
      Thanks for sharing with me.