Somewhere between the innocent girl and the not so innocent mistress is the bizarre, sensuous story of Tristana.
Luis Buñuel spent a lot of time battling Spanish censors who were trying to uphold destructively conservative values. When the director wanted to turn Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel “Tristana” into a movie in 1962, his and Julio Alejandro’s script was rejected. The same thing had happened earlier in the year with another screenplay. It took six years until the project was revived, and what was to have been Buñuel’s great return to Spain after living in Mexico for many years became another protracted struggle with Franco’s censors. No wonder, because Tristana is true to the director’s style and themes.
In 1920s Toledo, the 19-year-old Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) becomes an orphan when her mother dies and is adopted by the much older nobleman Don Lope Garrido (Fernando Rey). He is immediately attracted to her and it doesn’t take long for him to steal a kiss and turn their initial father-daughter relationship into something more sexually twisted. Tristana agrees to this arrangement, but a few years later she’s becoming more independent, leaving the house and going places without telling Don Lope who finds it very annoying. She falls in love with an artist her age, Horacio (Franco Nero), and prepares to leave Toledo with him. Don Lope is unable to put up much resistance, although he pathetically tries to challenge his young rival to a duel. However, the old man is surprisingly drawn into Tristana and Horacio’s lives again at a later stage…
Attacks on the Catholic Church
This classic has become one of Buñuel’s most highly praised, even earning an Oscar nomination, but it isn’t as shocking as certain parts of Belle de Jour (1967). That’s not to say that Tristana is tame. One of the most memorable visuals is the girl having frequent nightmares involving Don Lope where his decapitated head has replaced the rope of a church bell that keeps ringing. Religion is an obvious theme in the film. Interestingly, Don Lope remains a very unflattering human being in spite of the fact that he shares some of the director’s values and opinions. He’s an atheist, shunned by his deeply religious sister, and he despises the bourgeoisie and how they, in his opinion, walk all over decent, common workers. There is much contradiction in this character, since Don Lope himself belongs to the upper middle class and behaves very much like one of them. He’s growing old but refuses to acknowledge it, dying his beard black, spouting sexually liberated views and approaching young women as if age doesn’t matter at all; at the same time, his attitude toward Tristana is very stern and paternal. The attacks on the Catholic Church that Buñuel levels through Don Lope must have been enough to irritate censors, but the story as a whole, where improper lust and exploitation is followed by bitterness and malice as Don Lope gets his comeuppance, cannot have been easy to swallow. Still, in the end maybe the censors became too absorbed to demand more concessions from the filmmakers. Apart from what I’ve already addressed, the film also stages fascinating clashes between youth and old age and mirrors a frustration that is likely felt by disabled persons, symbolized here by a deaf-and-mute boy and Tristana’s eventual destiny. Deneuve and Rey are equally magnificent in their roles; Nero really takes a backseat.
At the time of Belle de Jour, Buñuel apparently said that it would be his last film. Considering the fact that he went on to make a few more great dramas, such as this and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), we should all be thankful that he found inspiration somewhere.
Tristana 1970-France-Spain. 99 min. Color. Produced by Luis Buñuel, Robert Dorfmann. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel. Novel: Benito Pérez Galdós. Cinematography: José F. Aguayo. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Tristana), Fernando Rey (Don Lope Garrido), Franco Nero (Horacio), Jesus Fernandez, Lola Gaos, Vincent Solder.
Last word: “It was the first time [Buñuel] had been able to go back to Spain since ‘Viridiana’; it was a book that he had always wanted to do so he was very happy to go back to Spain to do it. He was a lot more open. We even had dinner together in my house, which was something very exceptional. I could feel he was very different, and being surrounded by the Spanish language was much easier for him. Everything went very smoothly and well. ‘Tristana’ is one of my favourite films.” (Deneuve, The Guardian)