Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel is a puzzling masterpiece of Surrealist cinema – and Thomas Adès’ new opera preserves its mysteries and wonders, writes Matthew Anderson.

A group of men in tailcoats and women in evening dresses arrives at a grand house. They are returning from the opera, and their party includes the conductor and one of the singers. But the servants have fled, sensing something is not right, and the party is affronted when there is no-one in the house’s imposing hall to take their coats. They retreat upstairs and then – in the first sign that things are about to get really weird – we see the party enter the house again, as if for the first time, and the scene begins again.

This moment is from Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a masterpiece of Surrealist cinema from 1962 which has now been thrillingly transformed into an opera itself, with music by British composer Thomas Adès. The piece was first performed at the Salzburg Festival last year and has just had its UK premiere at the Royal Opera House in London.

The great conceit of The Exterminating Angel is that, inexplicably, the guests can’t leave the party. They dine lavishly and adjourn to the drawing room, where one of the guests, Blanca, entertains them with a piano sonata. But then at the moment when the evening would usually break up, the rules of polite society begin to break down. The guests begin to settle down on the sofa and on the floor, and one by one they drift off to sleep. In the morning when they wake, they find themselves unable to go. They simply can’t do it; they lack the will.

From here the characters are in a downward spiral, from the heights of sophistication and refinement to the depths of depravity. Disheveled and tortured by hunger and thirst, they fight and bicker, strip off their fine clothes and smash the walls. By the end of both the opera and the film, several of them will be dead.

Angel wings

Buñuel would never give any explanation of his film’s title. In fact he intended to call it something else, and changed it to The Exterminating Angel only after filming was complete. In the room where the guests are trapped, there is a panel which opens into a small chamber that, once the social order has collapsed, the guests withdraw into and break the ultimate taboos: it is here where they defecate and have sex, and where a young couple kill themselves. In the film, the panels of the room are painted with religious scenes and there is an angel on this little door. “Buñuel comes out of a religious education and background,” says Peter William Evans, professor emeritus of film studies at Queen Mary University London. He sees the angel as “a secular metaphor, a concept for punishing a society” for its “adherence to a certain kind of bourgeois ideology”.

Buñuel sees how bourgeois ideology represses socially, sexually, politically, spiritually – Peter William Evans

Buñuel was taking aim at what Evans calls “the inhibitions, the repressions of bourgeois life”, which he “as a Surrealist, as a free thinker and as a libertine, is keen to expose and to shame.” The Exterminating Angel’s partygoers, for instance, are shown as a vapid bunch, whose conversation is heavy on innuendo, name-dropping and back-stabbing. But Buñuel himself was not above a bit of bitchy gossip: his autobiography, My Last Breath, is full of waspish asides about the famous people he met. Picasso, for instance, is “selfish and egocentric” and Jorge Luis Borges is “very pretentious”. In this sense, could Buñuel himself be guilty of that ultimate bourgeois vice, hypocrisy? “I met Buñuel in Mexico in 1982, the year before he died, and he had a very bourgeois life,” says Evans. “He was attracted to the charms of the bourgeoisie.” But at the same time, “he accepts and sees the ways in which bourgeois ideology represses socially, sexually, politically, spiritually.”

Tom Cairns, who wrote the opera’s libretto with Adès and who directs the production at the Royal Opera House says he was “terribly aware of the particular audience that is labeled ‘an opera audience’, and how similar they were to the people on stage.” But, “like all of us,” the characters "are victims of their own class,” he says. “It could be any group of humans that are subjected to this sort of ordeal.” By the end of the opera, he wants “all of us, of any class, to feel the fear of being alive, of existence and how things can completely crumble in front of you.”

In the opera, the angel is something quite different from Buñuel’s. It is a distinct presence, almost a character in its own right and perhaps even the star the show. Adès has represented it with an unusual addition to the orchestra, the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument whose eerie, keening sound – somehow resembling a human voice but at the same time totally otherworldly and strange – has soundtracked a thousand alien landings. The ondes martenot becomes “the voice of the exterminating angel,” Adès has said, “in the sense that the instrument is heard whenever a figure says something that contributes to the situation of immobility.”

Staying put

Frustration is a key theme in Buñuel’s films, says Evans: “that we are unable to act on our desires for one reason or another”. Buñuel has this in common with many other artists of the 20th Century, who have memorably explored states of inaction – just think of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Let’s go. [Stage direction: They do not move].” Or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huit Clos (No Exit) in which three characters are locked up in a room, which, despite their attempts to leave, they can’t – and so they remain trapped in the eternal purgatory of each other’s company. The play contains Sartre’s most famous quote, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”), a sentiment that would be familiar to the guests in The Exterminating Angel and indeed to anyone who has taken a country holiday in bad weather.

 

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris contains an amusing moment that pokes fun at the exasperation that the characters’ stasis can provoke. In it, a successful but melancholy screenwriter Gil (played by Owen Wilson) goes back in time to Paris of the 1920s, where he meets many of the avant-garde artists who flocked to the city at that time: Salvador Dalí, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, Gertrude Stein – as well as the young Luis Buñuel. Late at night, in a café, Gil explains to Dalí, Buñuel and Man Ray that he has travelled from the future, “a perplexing situation” – but as Surrealists, they don’t really see anything strange about it at all. Later, Gil recounts the plot of The Exterminating Angel to the young Buñuel, 40 years before he will make the film, and this time it is the Surrealist himself who is perplexed: but why don’t they just get up and leave?

“We never ever sat down and said ‘what’s this about?’ or ‘what does this mean?’” says Cairns. “If I’d started to do that I think I’d have just driven up into a cul de sac and got stuck. It became almost second nature to me that the piece and the ideas behind it were as real as anything else is real.” And sometimes the most straightforward explanations are the best, as in Buñuel’s own account of re-watching his film years later: “I simply see a group of people,” he wrote, “who couldn’t do what they wanted to – leave a room.”

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