“It’s good to have dreams, even if they’re frightening… The dead don’t dream.”
‘Tristana’, directed by Luis Buñuel in 1970, is a Spanish movie based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, but with Buñuel’s characteristic alterations and flourishes. The plot focuses on a triangular relationship between Tristana, played by Catherine Deneuve, Don Lope, her guardian and lover played by Fernando Rey and Horacio, an artist Tristana with whom falls in love. As with Fassbinder’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’, this is a film about layered relationships and the shifting power roles within them. The title character in Buñuel’s movie, much like Marlene in Fassbinder’s, begins as a submissive and passive victim. Tristana is forced into a warped sexual relationship with her adoptive father and then seeks to take control by leaving Lope and finding Horacio, only to suffer from an illness that leads to the amputation of a leg. This drives her back to Lope and leads to her finally taking the ultimate control over him by facilitating his death. The movie resembles ‘Belle de Jour’ more than ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, but still includes touches of Buñuel’s precise surrealism, most notably in a Freudian dream sequence in which Tristana sees the severed head of Lope substituting the clapper in a church bell. But it is the ambiguous and corrupt relationships between the characters, and the equation of Tristana’s assumption of power with her loss of a moral centre that form the core of Buñuel’s satirical, cynical style. It’s a lavish film, as roaming and open as Fassbinder’s is enclosed and claustrophobic. In this film, the submissive/dominant subtext is played out primarily through the performances rather that any abstract or allegorical mise-en-scène. There’s a great deal here to digest. Buñuel is clearly preoccupied with the conflicts between men and women, between the religious and secular and between the different political poles, and all these tensions are condensed within this film and focused on the tragic life of an orphan.
Would I recommend it? Yes, it’s an uncomfortable film to watch, but Deneuve and Rey are brilliant. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Petra von Kant’ for the similar themes, or even ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’ for a different critical perspective on Spanish politics.