Mise en Abyme is a French term which translated means ‘placed into the Abyss’. The term describes the experience of being caught between two mirrors and seeing an infinite reproduction of one’s own image. This recursive effect was captured during the Cameo Cinema’s live screening of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Exterminating Angel, adapted from the eponymous film directed by Luis Buñuel and composed and conducted by Thomas Adès.
The live screening was one in a Picturehouse series entitled ‘Screen Arts’ which includes live Ballet, Theatre, and Opera from around the world. It is wonderful that we can now bring live performance to audiences across the globe in the comfort of their local movie theatre. But this modally ‘translated’ experience is not without its consequences. The effects that come with theatrical live screening were particularly striking in The Exterminating Angel. To begin with, Luis Buñuel’s surreal narrative was originally conceived for the screen. The inter-medial redoubling of the Cameo experience—of the screen, adapted for the stage, re-adapted for screen—cannot be overlooked. The Cameo audience might have been one degree removed from the live opera experience in New York but, when it came to the original medium of the narrative, we at the Cameo had an unanticipated advantage. Adès himself acknowledged the importance of the cinematic quality of his opera and this effect is certainly heightened in the movie theatre space.
The plots of both the film and the opera are virtually identical: a group of high-society friends are invited to a dinner party at the mansion of a wealthy couple. The guests end up unconventionally staying the night and upon waking up, they begin to discover that, despite there not being any physical barriers preventing their departure, they cannot manage to leave the room. The rest of the narrative rests upon this absurd fact and everything it entails.
The guests question their sanity, blame each other for their predicament, and develop both attachments towards and rivalries against each another. They desperately fight hunger and thirst, and are ultimately forced to abandon all social decorum for the sake of survival. The madness in the room escalates to its almost violent climax when suddenly, one of the guests realises that everyone happens to be standing in exactly the same place as when their captivity began. It is after they acknowledge this fortuitous repetition, and literally reenact the scene during which they became trapped that they are finally able to escape.
The main plot is capped by these two moments that parenthesise the guests’ descent into madness. The most interesting fact about these moments is that they are purposefully identical to one other. While Buñuel was notorious for his lack of explanations for the film, it is likely concerned with a kind of maniacal underbelly, a surreal unconscious, that is constantly suppressed by our attachment to our social protocol. The film creates a fissure in the perfectly polished routine of these aristocrats, and it is within this fissure that each one of them begins to embody a perverse madness. The fact that the traumatic experience is capped by identical scenes is reminiscent of the bindings of a book – or, indeed, of the curtains on a stage. The event begins and ends with two identical queues and something supernatural happens in between. A kind of sacred truth is momentarily revealed.
The lights dimmed at the Cameo and we were at the Met Opera House. The lights dimmed at the Opera House and we were at the guest’s dinner party. The lights dimmed at the dinner party and we were deeply trapped within Buñuel’s perverse nightmare. This multiplication of the space between audience and performance was uniquely adequate for the narrative being performed. The manipulation of the set, the introduction of live sheep, the eerie sound of Adès’ unconventional instrumentation, all contributed to the anxious dreamscape. The stratospheric register of the sopranos heightened the feeling of entrapment and took the narrative into the audio-spiritual realm. But while the weighty details of the opera were many, it was not these that made the Cameo experience so exceptional. After the re-enacted scene, the guests exited their psychotic nightmare and subsequently exited the salon. The play ended and the camera exited the stage. The New York applause died, and the Cameo screen exited the Metropolitan Opera House. Finally, the screen turned black and I exited the Cameo. As I walked outside into the cool November night, the wind felt especially biting. My ears were pulsing and my legs felt weak. It took me a second to catch my breath. I started to walk, leaving the surreal event behind, and in that moment, the real world, familiar yet somehow a bit more fragile, slowly began to welcome me back.