A decadent dinner party is in full swing after an evening at the opera. But when the guests try to leave, they find themselves inexplicably imprisoned at their posh party. Secret trysts and suicide ensue. There’s a bear and sheep and an impending sense of terror. Soon the thin façade of grace and poise declines into feral decay. This unending party is the premise of the 1962 surrealist dark comedy The Exterminating Angel by filmmaker Luis Buñuel, the inspiration for Adès’s new opera.
The Exterminating Angel was Buñuel’s 26th film, made after the early (and hugely influential) Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, both created in collaboration with his friend and mentor Salvador Dalí, and before Belle de Jour (featuring a career-defining star turn by Catherine Deneuve) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, his 1972 masterpiece that also centered on a problematic dinner party.
Buñuel was perhaps the master surrealist film director, breaking open an entire genre of film. Born in 1900 in Spain, he became the enfant terrible of the cinematic avant-garde. His work with Dalí and Man Ray helped shape his surrealist vision—as did, no doubt, his brief stint directing anti-Nazi war films for the U.S. Army, until, suspected of being a communist, he was summarily fired and stripped of his citizenship application. After that experience, he moved to Mexico City, where he would live for the rest of his life and where The Exterminating Angel was shot.
In The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel conjures a pungent world of class struggle and political uncertainty, and more than five decades later, the film still packs a punch. Indeed, it’s not only the Metropolitan Opera that’s having an Exterminating Angel moment. None other than Stephen Sondheim is working on a Buñuel-inspired musical scheduled to open at the Public Theater. So why has this work re-entered the Zeitgeist? Don’t ask. As Buñuel would say, demand for explanations is itself a symptom of a bourgeois mentality.