Deliberate, somehow endless–it clocks in at ninety-five–Tristana is something of an anti-Buñuel or, at least, I was expecting something a little more uncanny. Tristana is so normal, it’s something of a surprise (the film occasionally seems ready to leap into the surreal, but it remains grounded throughout). But it’s very boring, in that good way films can be boring. I can’t tell if Buñuel was doing something fantastic with the sound design or if the DVD was just a poor transfer. I think he was doing something with it though, just because some of the metallic echoes didn’t seem right for a bad transfer.
Tristana is the story of a young woman, Deneuve, whose mother dies and she ends up as the ward of Fernando Rey… and, as it turns out, Rey is a dirty old man. He doesn’t quite force himself on her and he doesn’t quite seduce her, something in between, and that development (after he endears himself to the viewer by not being a dirty old man toward her) sets the film’s present “action” (quotation marks for absurdity’s sake) in motion. Buñuel skips through time a few times in the film, so it’s hard to know how much time passes before the end, but less than ten years seems reasonable (it’s from a novel, so I suppose I could check but I don’t really want to know).
It’s rare–and I suppose it’s appropriate Buñuel does it one of the handful of times I’ve seen it done–a film can cover so much time, so much change to a character (I never really understood Deneuve’s reputation as an actress, but she’s astounding in Tristana), with so little deliberate action and be so affecting in the end. Tristana works because of its end… but it wouldn’t make any sense without what came before. Even though, for the first bit and sometimes again throughout the film, Rey is the central character, it’s all about Deneuve and seeing what terrible effect Rey has on her. It’s a tragedy, but one so quite and common seeming… especially when one is waiting for a sword fight for most of the first half.
The setting of a small Spanish town and the sound design–along with the maid (Rey’s, also Deneuve’s only friend for most of the film) having a deaf son–create an odd atmosphere for the film… if it weren’t for the setting, I’d say it were practically Gothic, feminist revisionist, if such a genre exists. Buñuel has an interesting way of shooting the empty streets too–he has ornate camera setups he never allows to complete, big crane shots only get a few feet off the ground before he cuts away, creating a sense of incompleteness. The whole film–no spoilers, though one could just go to IMDb–but the whole film is about incompleteness and the terrible, selfish things people do to each other.
The only real indicator of the uncanny–besides being suspicious of Buñuel–is a dream sequence, which lays the groundwork, early on, to be suspicious of everything. But it could be me.
Deneuve’s character’s arc in this film is one of those singular filmic tragedies. Buñuel’s handling of it makes it all the more effective, but her performance makes everything possible. It’s an odd thing–a choice role, one anyone could succeed in, filled with a performance proving no one else could succeed in it.
Directed by Luis Buñuel; screenplay by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, based on the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós; director of photography, José F. Aguayo; edited by Pedro del Rey; produced by Buñuel and Robert Dorfmann; released by Maron Films.
Starring Catherine Deneuve (Tristana), Fernando Rey (Don Lope), Franco Nero (Horacio), Lola Gaos (Saturna), Jesús Fernández (Saturno) and Antonio Casas (Don Cosme).