As the evening wears into dawn, the guests cannot bring themselves to leave the party. By mid-morning, it becomes obvious that they cannot leave the room. Any attempt to leave causes second thoughts or inertia.
The remaining food and water is consumed, and the guests face thirst and starvation. An elderly guest (Antonio Bravo) dies, and a young engaged couple (Ofelia Montesco and Xavier Massé) commit suicide. Meanwhile, a crowd gathers outside the mansion, but no one is able to enter. The unseen "exterminating angel" has created a psychological force field that separates the socialites from their would-be rescuers.
How others will see it. The Exterminating Angel initially had little impact outside of Mexico, although the film did win Best Non-European Film at Bodil. Later, as Buñuel had late in life success with surreal French movies, cinephiles explored his earlier Mexican work, and The Exterminating Angel became a cult classic.
Today at imdb.com, the movie has a healthy 17K user votes and an extremely high user rating of 8.3 among viewers under age 45. Among women over 45, half grade the film just 1 out of 10, an indication that they aren't amused and believe the director takes sadistic pleasure in the characters' suffering.
How I felt about it. As is the case with so many Buñuel films, dating back to his famous and bizzare short Un Chien Andalou, viewers are left bewildered. What does it all mean? It must mean something.
There is undoubtedly a "Lord of the Flies" aspect, since the dinner party guests decline in civility until they openly plot the murder of their host. A few guests maintain their composure, notably the doctor, but the base personalities of the others emerge, and it is generally a selfish and sorry sight.
Since it is upper class socialites that endure slow cooker suffering, one wonders whether Buñuel indeed takes pleasure from it. The working class servants instinctively know that they should leave the mansion, while the posh guests walk into the supernatural trap.
But Buñuel also features the wealthy in his French sex comedies. It may be that he simply prefers the wealthy as subjects in his films.
Other than these general observations, no conclusions can be drawn in terms of meaning. But how are we supposed to react? Few viewers can be expected to enjoy the guests' enduring starvation in hostile, close company, with a decaying body dumped in a closet. We watch the movie like we would rubberneck the wreckage of an auto accident. Will they ever escape that room alive?
The Exterminating Angel was the second of three Buñuel movies with Silvia Pinal as the lead. Later, Buñuel would make two movies with Catherine Deneuve, and four movies with Fernando Rey. The significance of the recasting appears limited to the actors' ability to go with the flow, a desirable attribute when confronted with the surreal.