Tristana May 30, 2017
Like the heroine(s?) of Luis Buñuel’s swan song That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), the eponymous femme of Tristana (1970) is a vision of untouchable perfection. Looking through the lens of the male gaze, she is — at least at the film’s beginning — the ideal. Beautiful, virginal, passive. Much of what she does circles around pleasing the wants and the needs of any anonymous male standing in the room.
But some time passes and she’s able to assert herself as an individual, take back her submissiveness and subtextually declare that serving herself is her number one priority. The serving of another isn’t even second. What Tristana wants, and mostly gets, is power. Specifically sexual power, as there comes a point in her young life in which she realizes that her face and body are enough to drive any man deep into a state of despair when he’s rejected by them.
What Tristana is mostly compelled by, though, is just how easily a power dynamic can be shifted, and how much an ugly thing such can be when the tables have turned and every action seems to be a play in the furthering of one’s own gain. In effect, it is a vicious film, ruthless until tragedy strikes and niceties once again have to be performed.
Like most of the features sitting within Buñuel’s diamond-encrusted oeuvre, Tristana is an amalgamation of the conventional, the intellectual, the experimental, and the grotesque. It is a high point in the later period of his career, which arguably began with 1967’s Belle de Jour, a movie concerned with the connection between masochism and pleasure.
In comparison to Buñuel’s other later films, like the cutting The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and the socially subversive The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Tristana finds the director infatuated with the link between one man’s sexual obsession and one woman’s quest to attain self-actualization, uncaring of who she hurts in the process.
The movie is not among Buñuel’s strongest — its messages hover quietly rather than taunt, and its sense of humor is not nearly as morbid as it should be — but it is nonetheless among his most accessible, using Catherine Deneuve’s ice maiden persona to its fullest extent and taking on the guise of a warped melodrama that even the most casual of a viewer could take a liking to. Because I like Buñuel when he’s at his most rebellious, the movie feels stiff to me. But there’s no denying its watchability.
In the film, Deneuve is Tristana, a Spanish beauty who’s just a teenager when we first meet her. Orphaned and without a penny to her name, she is adopted by Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a nobleman who first sees her as a daughter and then as an object of desire. The time span between them being makeshift father and child and their eventually becoming husband and wife is minuscule — Tristana is hardly given the opportunity to say yes to Don Lope’s advances.
But her transformation from dutiful “wife” to self-determining young woman is a quick one. By the time she turns 21, Tristana has begun vocalizing her intention to study art and music. And, ultimately, that she wants to marry Horacio (Franco Nero), an artist she courts briefly before she decides she’s had enough of being Don Lope’s toy.
All this is done with a great deal of callousness on Tristana’s part. She claims that she appreciates everything Don Lope has done for her and that her resenting his control over her is only a natural phenomenon. But clear is that she's intent on separating herself, and that the iciness that comes with that is something of a deliberate move on her part to show that she’s finished. A twist of fate, however, forces Tristana to come crawling back to the man who temporarily raised (and bedded) her.
Seeing the relationship between Tristana and Don Lope transmute over the course of the picture is investing in and of itself, as it’s never quite obvious exactly who has the upper hand and how much of the supposed hatred sitting between them is actually underlined in adoration. By its conclusion, we figure there isn’t much adulation here, though the toxic affinity seen is mesmerizing.
Buñuel would continue the ‘70s with a string of masterworks which, individualistically or holistically, still overshadow the subtle Tristana. They’re funnier, riskier, weirder. But its ideas are interesting and its leading lady is exquisite. And Buñuel never made a bad movie