The Exterminating Angels

[Note: The Exterminating Angels is set for a limited theatrical release starting March 7. IFC Films’ website has the full schedule of release.]

When I start watching a movie for review, I fire up my word processor alongside so I can snatch bits of thoughts that drift past while the action unfolds on the screen. Sometimes not much at all enters my head (which could be said of many of my pursuits, but I’m talking here about film criticism) and I end up trying to turn a couple lines of notes in the general tone of: "Used to have a great career," or, "Why all the monkeys?" into an entire review.

With The Exterminating Angels, I ended up with two full pages of notes, the most I’ve ever set down for anything during my time here at CHUD. It’s a good thing I’m a touch-typer. Before you get the wrong idea, though, the quantity of concepts that caught my eye does note equate to the quality of the film’s communication of those concepts.

The story concerns Francois, a mainstream filmmaker (Frédéric van den Driessche) becomes fascinated with the power of breaking sexual taboos, and the energy doing so imparts on a woman. He sets out to make an experimental film that captures the grace and beauty of the female orgasm. The actresses he casts take him into their confidence, acting out for him their erotic impulses, even without the cold eye of the camera watching. Slowly, the impartial filmmaker’s eye begins to cloud with an unhealthy involvement in the girls’ lives, setting him on a path toward bedlam.

Also, there are some angels that wear black exercise outfits, and the ghost of Francois’ grandmother. Yes-siree, it’s a French film.

For the volume of intersecting purposes, motivations, and sexual confusions that build up around Francois like a nest of burning wool, the source of the film’s energy comes from something very simple: chemistry. I don’t mean that entirely in the these-actors-go-together-like-tab-A-into-slot-B kind of chemistry, though there is that as well. I mean the lessons you get taught in high school (I hope) that can be summed up by saying that the breaking of bonds produces energy, sometimes explosive, sometimes illuminating.

There are twin bonds set around the characters in The Exterminating Angels. The first two-thirds of the film is concerned with the shackles of the sexually taboo. In the screen tests that Francois conducts with his potential cast, he coaxes them to open up to him about the things that they find erotic; they take him into his confidence and reveal their plans for crossing the boundaries of their taboo. For a certain few, the audience then follows Francois and the girls through the shattering of those boundaries. These erotic scenes are shot and scored beautifully, matching the exploration of the depth of the taboo, and then snapping it in half with a force that, I have to apologize, is best described as a climax.

The eroticism isn’t an end unto itself, though. When the borders of taboo are broken down, their power to protect is dismissed. The girls find themselves beyond their familiar grounds and, in the defining focus of the movie, begin to erect new boundaries out of emotion. The taboos are gone, a sort of freedom has been gained, and the second of the film’s two bonds coil around them like constrictors. Their impetus carries them through the barriers erected by taboo, but they can’t slow themselves before crashing into those formed by emotion.,

Pulling back a little, with mention of atomic chemistry comes another scientific intrusion on this least scientific of topics: uncertainty, courtesy of Heisenberg. There’s no analogous application of the uncertainty principle to sex, but an extension of it is entirely applicable to Francois. He remains aloof from his cast, within self-imposed taboos not to touch them, but he can not observe their passion without changing both them and himself.

Francois’ unwitting selfishness takes over as the core of his character. He is struck by the ease at which an actress takes him into her confidence, and in part undertakes the film project in order to replicate that feeling. It’s a traditional male-dominance pursuit, as he exercises his strength over the girls, exploiting their boundaries to help him feel secure within his own. It’s not hard to have sympathy for Francois, particularly given the outcome of the third act, but his role as observer is far less passive than he intends it to be, despite his ignorance of the fact.

It’s in that final third of the film that things really start to get complex. On a diagram of characters at this point, lines would cross and re-cross like the web of a concussed spider. Through the compelling mess a picture of a moral begins to form: Taboos exist for a reason; boundaries are necessary for a life in society. But the moral doesn’t hold. Francois’ clinical side breaks down. He gets his film made, but not without the significant emotional casualties of two of his actresses. They take their revenge from a distance, and the character of Francois is punished beyond what his mental crimes seem to warrant.

The moral vanishes, or deadlocks with its opposite. The man who couldn’t bring himself to violate his taboos is beaten down because he remained safe within their shell. He wouldn’t follow his actresses across boundaries, and wouldn’t expose himself to the possibility of causing the collapse of that outer ring of emotional fences. The problem is that the girls each invested some part of themselves into his boundaries, taking him into their confidence just as he had planned. But from his insular point-of-view, within his protective borders, he couldn’t see that they wanted him to barter such confidence one for one.

The question of the metaphysical has to enter into a discussion about the film because so many of Francois’ decisions hinge upon the urgings of invisible creatures, perhaps the angels of the title, who tempt and taunt him in the mode of CS Lewis’ Wormwood — unheard, but powerful. I’m disturbed by their intrusion into what is otherwise a very human drama, because they seem to represent an apology or an excuse. "The devil made me do it," the narrative voice almost says, when the implications of the character interactions carry far more weight in an atheistic world.

Such willful ambiguity still contributes mightily to the film’s overall impact, which is one filled with danger, eroticism, and honest social philosophy — complications all, and resolutions none. The Exterminating Angels‘ skill and power are invested in its near-complete rendering of a complex picture of sexual politics; the resulting tension between graceful maturity and brutish immaturity are of a breathless beauty while it lasts.

7.5 out of 10