"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 29, 2012

"Tristana" (1970) by Luis Bunuel (Movie review)

The films of Luis Bunuel are always about power - power over others - and perverse and farcical Tristana  (1970) is perhaps the most explicit illustration of this theme. The film is loosely based on a novel by Benito Perez Galdos.

Tristana (Catherine Deneuve, hauntingly beautiful as ever) is a young woman, who when her mother dies, is entrusted to the care of her elderly uncle Don Lope (Fernando Rey at his suave best) who lives in the beautiful city of Toledo. The innocent and naive Tristana has only lived with her mother and has no experience at all of the world. Don Lope is a respected and distinguished-looking bourgeois gentleman, who has not worked a day in his life, liberal and anti-clerical, but he has one weakness: he can't keep his hands off women (and his views of women are the opposite of liberal).

Although she is repelled by the old man's overtures, in no time the innocent girl has been overpowered by her strong-willed guardian. Every night she is forced to sleep in his bed, and in the daytime she is confined to the house as a virtual prisoner. Says hypocritical Don Lope: "If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home" - a saying that will eventually come true in an unexpected way.

Gradually, Tristana is allowed to go on short walks when accompanied by the housekeeper (Lola Gaos). On one of these outings she meets a handsome young painter (Franco Nero), with whom she falls in love. Finally, she elopes with him, leaving a desolate Don Lope behind.

Two years later, Tristana unexpectedly returns. She has been diagnosed with a leg tumor and the painter, not feeling up to the care the seriously ill woman demands, lets her go (to the scorn of Tristana). Luckily, Don Lope who initially had trouble making both ends meet, has received a considerable inheritance and is able to hire the best medical assistance. Tristana's leg is amputated and she is fitted with a prosthetic one. The beautiful woman now moves around on crutches and is indeed confined to the house.

Strangely enough, Tristana's illness has made her stronger, while Don Lope has visibly become weaker with age - despite his atheism, he even plays cards with the local priest when he feels lonely (the priest, of course, is eventually after the money the Don will leave at his death). The new Tristana does not provide sexual services anymore to the old Don, although she forces him to marry her for respectability - and to keep his fortune out of the hands of the church. Don Lope in his old age sadly enough has finally become the father figure that Tristana craved at the start of the film but that he didn't provide because he wanted her as his concubine. And Tristana mainly uses her position as mistress of the house to humiliate and frustrate Don Lope. When he sits sipping chocolate and playing cards with his friends, she noisily keeps moving up and down the corridor on her crutches. She also derisively gives to others what she keeps from her husband: when the deaf-mute son of the housekeeper leers at her, she teases him by standing on the balcony and showing her breasts (of course below the frame of the film to tease the viewer as well).

And the stage is set for sweet revenge, for now Tristana, vile and vindictive, has all the power. When Don Lope is ill in bed with a severe cold, she "forgets" to call the doctor but instead masochistically opens the window as wide as possible and so finishes him off as punishment for stealing her virginity. Eventually, winner takes all it seems - but in the process, Tristana has lost her soul and she has become as jaded as Don Lope was.

As is usual, this Bunuel film is full of explicit Freudian images. Every scene is packed with visual interest. It also provides an interesting picture of catholic Spain and the hypocrisy rampant in such an ultra-conservative society as well as the marginal position of women in it - of course seen through the anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois eyes of the film maker. But above all, the most wonderful thing in the film is the transformation Catherine Deneuve undergoes from uptight virgin with her hair in braids to the bitchy and mean one-legged woman at the end. A most difficult role that is performed in a fascinating way.
Other reviews of Bunuel films on this site:  Belle de Jour (1967, also with Catherine Deneuve); That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, also with Fernando Rey).
(Reviewed August 2014)