So, it’s another Buñuel film. It’s a little more surreal than his earlier Viridiana, but only just – it hit my sweet spot of “weird enough to catch my attention but not so weird that I can’t figure out the basic plot.” And as plots go it’s pretty simple – a group of Spain’s hoi polloi gather for a dinner party, only to find that they can’t leave afterward. There’s no reason why they can’t leave, they just….can’t.
At first it looks more like the guests are either strangely rude or cripplingly polite – they know it’s late and they should be going, but no one really wants to draw attention to themselves by being the first to leave, so everyone sits around waiting for someone else to make the first move and everyone ends up falling asleep in whatever chair or couch they’re sitting in, even though the hosts have said that they can make up guest bedrooms. In the morning the hostess scrambles to give everyone some dinner leftovers and coffee as a half-assed breakfast, and several guests who’ve said they should leave now hesitate at the offer of coffee – but they really mean to leave after, seriously. Except they can’t. For whatever reason, they get to the threshhold of the drawing room, peer into the next room, and then turn back.
And so they stay. For days. The food runs out, a vase in a storage closet becomes the ad hoc toilet, another storage closet becomes the hookup privacy room. When one guest in frail health dies, still another closet becomes the morgue. The guests become increasingly desperate, hacking a hole in the wall and bursting a pipe to get fresh drinking water or luring some pet sheep into the room for food (why the hosts have pet sheep is unexplained). Someone’s stash of morphine gets confiscated to use to treat another sick guest, until another guest steals it back so he can trip out. And throughout the guests make increasingly desperate and weird efforts to escape – Kabbalah rituals, trying to push each other, holding hands and trying to jump. In time the guests accuse the host of somehow casting a spell over them all and start talking human sacrifice – surely if their hosts die, they will finally be able to leave.
So, we never find out why the guests are trapped. But there’s enough to suggest something supernatural – in the very first scene, before the guests arrive, the hosts’ various butlers and maids and waiters all sneak out one by one – they can’t say why they want to leave, they just have the sense they need to. One says he feels like he needs to take a walk. Another is compelled to visit an ill relative. The two cooks just wanna leave. However, they – like the relatives of the trapped guests – form a curious and concerned crowd outside the house during their captivity, and find themselves also strangely reluctant to go in. One little boy, the son of one of the guests, even tries a daring run up the driveway to the front door – but he stops halfway, uneasy, and turns around and runs right back. However, whatever that strange force is keeping the guests in and others out, we never see it, hear it, or learn of its cause. It’s just there, keeping the guests trapped.
This kind of “just surreal enough” is 100% my jam. It’s almost like the plots of very early X-Files episodes, where there is just enough science to give the supernatural elements a whiff of plausibility (there’s a smart house that’s going rogue and killing people? Well, current A.I. technology isn’t quite there, but we’re getting close… Or, some loggers disappeared after cutting down old-growth timber and disrupting some previously-unknown bugs? Well, we regularly discover new species the further we venture into old-growth forests….). The film even takes a sort of X-Files approach of solving the immediate problem (the guests do finally figure out an escape), only to see the issue crop up again elsewhere in the final scene.
And just like with the X-Files – I am satisfied leaving some questions unanswered. Other critics have speculated that the force keeping everyone in place is just societal conditioning gone haywire, or that the whole film is a Lord Of The Flies–style parable about how easily people will descend into anarchy when trapped. Roger Ebert even argued that the whole thing was a discourse on the class structure during the Spanish Civil War. But me, I’m happy with “we don’t know why they couldn’t leave, I’ll just go with it.”