The Exterminating Angel (1962) and the “Party Out of Bounds” Story

exterminatingangel

One of my favorite types of stories, especially when told on stage or on the screen, is what The B-52s would call the “party gone out of bounds”. I love it when guests at a fictional party stop celebrating and start having a truly shitty, life-changing catastrophe of a time, but decide to stick around and see it through instead of taking the logical step out of the door. It’s a familiar feeling, that late hour biterness that arises when alcohol’s social lubrication takes a toxic turn and the vile, dangerous aspects of human nature start bubbling to the surface. Civility dissolves and our feral natures emerge. The “Party Out of Bounds” story is one I’ve lived many times before, mostly in the drunken hours of early morning when I should’ve gone to bed, but instead felt compelled to stay up and argue “important”, hurtful things I didn’t always mean. I take strange pleasure in seeing these repellent impulses reflected back at me in my entertainment media, particularly in movies & plays.

Part of the allure of “Party Out of Bounds” story is the motivation for sticking around. What compels someone to remain at a party when “situations degenerate, disgusting things you’d never anticipate”? In the genre’s most easily recognizable example, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it’s clear that the central couple George & Martha loathe their marriage and the make-believe required to keep it afloat, so their motivations for destroying each other’s delusions are fairly straightforward. But why do the younger couple, Nick & Honey, stick around once the tone gets sour and focused on destroying them as well? In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it’s understandable why Maggie wants Brick to snap out of his sullen state and actively engage with life, but why does Brick allow the evening to go on endlessly, Maggie & his father digging deeper into his painful past? In The Boys In The Band, Michael allows his own self-loathing & alcoholism to tank the birthday party he throws for his friend Harold, but why do the other guests allow themselves to get sucked into his emotional black hole? The instinct to tough it out and see the awful thing through is fascinating to me.

Some “Party Out of Bounds” stories side-step the issue of motivation by confining their characters with literal barriers, some physical and some metaphysical. It’s A Disaster & Coherence are both great recent examples of this tactic, using chemical warfare & a supernatural occurrence to bottle their partygoers at a disastrous brunch & dinner party, respectively. This approach to the genre is more metaphorical than the one detailed above, but belongs all the same. Although an external force is trapping the characters, it’s their internal failings that drive the parties out of bounds. Both situations would have soured with or without the outside help.

Surrealist master Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel plays both sides of this coin beautifully. There is an external force that keeps the film’s aristocratic partygoers trapped in a single cramped room of an expansive mansion, but it is a force than cannot be explained. The characters are compelled to remain in the mansion’s music room as if there were a force field blocking them at the door. At first the guests seem to remain at the dinner party out of nervousness & etiquette, like little kids waiting anxiously for someone to take the first dive at a pool party. Each time someone makes a motion to leave, they find a flimsy excuse to stick around: a forgotten purse, a cup of coffee. As with Coherence & It’s A Disaster there’s an external authority confining the partygoers to the music room, but the fact that this authority cannot be seen or even understood links the movie to the compulsion detailed in the classic examples listed above. The Exterminating Angel is the ultimate “Party Out of Bounds” story: the instinct that coerces its partygoers to see the awful thing through is given tangible power. It is an ugly compulsion materialized, a masochistic urge physically manifested.

As the ultimate “Party Out of Bounds” story, The Exterminating Angel starts with the wealthiest, most civilized party guests and ends with them reaching a feral state, fighting for food & water like wild animals. More than any other film listed above, the party starts at the greatest height of good manners before plummeting into murkiest depths of depravity. Civility more than dissolves here. It’s erased so completely that you begin to question whether it was present in the first place. As the days stretch on in the music room and the guests turn on each other one by one, the opulence & etiquette on display in the early scenes take the shape of a thin veneer, just barely covering the seething vulgarity under the surface. At the film’s beginning, the guests were already full of hatred, already committing adultery, already prone to frivolous cruelty, but were much better at covering up their indiscretions. Getting trapped in the music room merely forces them to display their true natures openly & honestly.

The debasement is gradual. At first guests become fatigued and take cat naps on various chairs & couches, but it’s fatigue that can be attributed to food, alcohol and the late hour of the party. Then they begin to undress from their tuxedos & gowns and clear places to sleep on the floor. As they wake from their makeshift slumber party, they start looking disheveled, unkempt. The reality of their inability to leave slowly dawns on them and they lose their self-control one by one. Those who initially remain calm consider themselves superior to the other guests, but that leverage doesn’t last long. Over time they come to blame each other for getting them in the bizarre predicament, pace at the doorway’s invisible barrier, cry, slip into comas, fight, fuck, commit suicide, hallucinate, insult each other’s hygiene and break into fits of hysterical laughter. When the story begins the characters are embarrassed to be caught acting like human beings. By its end they’re killing sheep with their bare hands and breaking apart furniture & musical instruments for firewood.

Yes, there are sheep roaming the house. There’s also a bear than begins to scale the mansion’s columns as if climbing a tree in plain view of the music room, seemingly mocking the party’s return to nature. The bear and the sheep were acquired for after-dinner entertainment that never arrived. There’s some symbolism to be made of the sheep’s presence (phrases like “mindless sheep” & “like lambs to the slaughter” come to mind), but what are we to make of the bear? And then there’s other details that beg to be picked apart: the vases the guests use as toilets are portals to an open-air outside world, there’s a severed hand that crawls across the floor like The Addams Family’s Thing, the rules of who can and who cannot cross the music room’s barrier becomes increasingly convoluted, the mansion itself is located on Providence Street, etc. It’s all, for a lack of a better word, perfectly surreal. Applying logical analysis to these images is a fool’s errand in my opinion, like the doctor at the party who tries to understand the music room phenomenon through reasoning and ultimately gets nowhere, just like his fellow partygoers.

It’s tempting to read into each of these images separately, but they’re better served when left at face value. Any of the larger ideas that need to get across are fairly plain without too much analysis. The aristocracy is like a gang of helpless infants without its serving staff. The barrier that keeps the affluent trapped in their mansion’s most frivolous room mirrors the way wealth can isolate a person from the “real” world outside and the common people who occupy it. Most importantly, though, civility is really a façade for the snarling beasts lurking within us. As characters begin to violate “the most basic concepts of good etiquette” and fail to “remember their upbringing”, one character calls it “the very end of human dignity.” I say good riddance to that dignity.

Getting back to the B-52s song in question, I’d like to answer the line “Who’s to blame when parties really get out of hand?” Only ourselves, buddy. Just us. Well, maybe us and alcohol. There’s a lot of great “Party Out of Bounds” stories out there and their conflict is always the same: a drunken, joyous celebration is derailed by repressed impulses & inherent, hideous aspects of human nature once civility is no longer there to keep them at bay. Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel pushes this conflict to unmatched extremes that are somehow just as amusing as they are terrifying. It’s an incredible feat of filmmaking and the crown jewel of a genre I love.

-Brandon Ledet

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