“Tristana”, recently digitally restored by the Cohen Film Collection, is a subdued Bunuel masterpiece of his later period. The austere film, with its muted palette, looks marvelous on the big screen.
The film, which closed the New York Film Festival in 1970, is Bunuel’s most quintessential Spanish film. Sharing Freudian fetish concerns with “El” and “Viridiana”, the almost realist character study abandons the fetid, baroque atmosphere of those two films, to explore the issues of power and powerlessness in male-female relations.
Bunuel, who body of work contains the most anarchic and virulent critique of society in cinema, tamps down his frisky Surrealist jokes, but manages to pinpoint all of Spain’s social hypocrisy of the era in this elegant character study.
Bunuel chose self-imposed exile following the Spanish Civil War, during which he worked in the USA and Mexico. Hollywood prove fruitless, but, while working at MoMA for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) as part of a production team that gathered and edited films to be distributed by American embassies in Latin America as anti-fascist propaganda, Bunuel created 2,000 remarkable works, editing sometimes very basic footage into powerful anti-fascist material.
Returning to Spain after decades of classic films produced in Mexico (“Nazarin”, “Simon Of the Desert” “El”, “Los Olvidados” etc.) and France (“Milky Way” “Belle De Jour”) Bunuel produced “Tristana” in an uneasy truce with the Franco Government and its censors.’
Bunuel’s adaptation of Benito Perez Galdos’ realist novel (“novela costumbrista”) adds a perverse character to the novel. “Nazarin” and “Viridiana” were also based on the 19th Century author. The film is set in Toledo during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship of 1929-35 (before Franco and the Republic) when workers and women’s rights protests were common in the streets. Eschewing Surrealist oneiric images (save for the Lopes’ severed head replacing the bell clapper in the church), Bunuel elides the passing months and years, so that the very construction of the story, its flow, becomes dreamlike.
Virginal Tristana (a dubbed, young Catherine Deneuve, who starred in Bunuel’s “Belle De Jour”) becomes the ward of Don Lope (Fernando Rey), when her mother dies. Hoping to remain in her home, she is added to Don Lopes’ household. She looks up to him as father, but soon the ladies-man who broke up her mother’s marriage (and possibly sired Tristana) has taken her as his mistress.
Rey, who also worked in “That Obscure Object of Desire ” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, seems the perfect proxy for Bunuel and the generation of “Senoritos” who raised him.
Don Lopes is an example of a noble class who holds himself above the laws of bourgeois gentility. An adherent to the ancient code of honor, he officiates at duels, follows all commandants that have nothing to do with love and sex, and disdaining filthy lucre, chose never to work. When circumstances force him to sell heirlooms, he lets them go at the first price rather than bargain.
The possessive Don Lopes refuses to let her out of the house. Mocking the bourgeois couples, Don Lopes warns Tristana to never marry, but rather experience love freely. Alas, he is unable to live by his own code.
His servant Saturna (Lola Gaos), and her deaf mute son Saturno (Jesús Fernández) are privy to her escapes from the house. Saturna becomes Don Lopes’ spy, and once Tristana takes Horacio as her lover, leads Don Lope’s to his studio.
Bunuel is oblique in his character study. Tristana never resists his advances, though she increasingly loathes him and longs to escape.. Her escape comes in the guise of handsome painter Horacio (dubbed heartthrob Franco Nero, at the peak of his looks). Tristana leaves with Horacio, but, espousing Don Lope’s ideology, refuses to marry him. When she falls ill with a cancerous tumor she demands he return her to Don Lopes’ house “To die”.
Her leg is amputated. But that’s not all that has changed. Rancor and blame makes her abandon her true love, and her frigid revenge on Lopes becomes her epiphany. The embittered Tristana comes to dominate the aging Don Lope, bringing him to heel by marrying him. Their wedding is almost funereal and the wedding night nonexistent. She becomes an arch example of the unfeeling Spanish Ruling Class of the day. Donating to the Church and the Police (Guardia Civil) she encircles Lopes with the bourgeois Spanish class he abhorred. The former boulevardier, who spent his days at the cafe, is reduced to playing cards with predatory priests hoping for a part of his impending inheritance. A MUST SEE. LANDMARK NUART