Luis Buñuel’s “Tristana”, which closed the New York Film Festival in 1970, opened this weekend, digitally restored, for a limited run at the Lincoln Plaza in advance of a DVD release.
An international co-production as well as an example of Buñuel’s late, relatively posh period, “Tristana” was also his most Spanish film—originally conceived as follow-up to his 1961 homecoming production, “Viridiana”—and based on a novel by 19th Century Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós, whose novels also provided the source for “Nazarin” and “Viridiana.” Catherine Deneuve, insisted on for the movie by its French co-producer, plays the title role. She’s dubbed into Spanish as is spaghetti western star Franco Nero (the original Django) in a supporting part. The movie, however, belongs to Fernando Rey in the role of an early 20th century “señorito”—a man of means, living off of his inheritance.
Buñuel’s father was one such señorito and “Tristana” has other autobiographical echoes—set in Toledo, a medieval city that much impressed the filmmaker in his youth, the period in which the movie is set, and has a recurring nightmare image involving a church bell, something Buñuel would maintain was the source of a childhood trauma. Basically, Buñuel takes the Galdós novel—the story of the old roué Don Lope (Rey) and his ward Tristana (Deneuve), a young virgin whom he debauches and without undue overemphasis raises the perversity level. (His additions to the novel include a lascivious deaf-mute and a detachable limb.)
Everything seems strange; every scene has its irrational bit of business. Although the narrative is relatively straightforward, the unstressed leaps in time make it seem almost free associational. The innocent Tristana is passively corrupted by her guardian (who may actually be her biological father) and exacts a prolonged revenge, first by betraying him with a dashing young painter (Nero) who she refuses to wed and ultimately leaves, and then by returning to the now elderly Don Lope’s bed as his wife.
Tristana may be a repressed sado-masochist but Don Lope, who fancies himself an anti-clerical freethinker, is, in Buñuel’s universe, something far worse—a self-regarding hypocrite. “The only way to keep a woman honest is to break her leg and keep her at home,” he brags to his buddies early in the movie. Much to his displeasure, not to mention his ultimate demise, that’s exactly how things turn out.