If I told you that Tristana was Luis Buñuel’s third film to be made in Spain, you might find it strange that it was one of his last films. Released in 1970, Buñuel would make only three more films, and none of them would be both set in Spain and spoken in Spanish. In fact, Tristana itself is barely in Spanish; Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero both had their lines dubbed in post-production, meaning one could argue that Viridiana is the only truly Spanish, feature-length film that the Spaniard ever made.
Tristana has more than production notes in common with Viridiana, though. Both are based on novels by Benito Pérez Galdó, and Fernando Rey pretty much reprises his role as an aging man who takes in a much younger woman (This time played by Deneuve, as the eponymous character) and tries to be, as he himself says, both father and husband depending on which is more convenient for him in a given moment. The Jungian subtext there is embarrassingly surface, but it stops purely at the Electra Complex. Just four years earlier, Deneuve and Buñuel teamed for Belle De Jour, a dense, Freudian-tinged film that also worked in the director’s trademark surrealism and had better characters and a more potent story to boot. Haven’t we been here before?
It is not all old news, though. Buñuel’s camerawork and use of deep space is about as strong as it ever was. Whether it’s too deaf characters signing to one another in the background of a mealtime conversation or a slow zoom away from the rhythmic work of blacksmiths, one that helps keep your attention focused (although this is also due largely to sound) while ignoring the more important interaction elsewhere, there is always plenty to look at, often for the sake of humor. Buñuel has always been a great comedian, with physical, dark humor showing up in the most unlikely places, but here he relegates it largely to background, which only makes it funnier. There are also Buñuel‘s trademarks: a dream image of Don Lope’s head in the place of a church bell is characteristically anticlerical and proves itself appropriately surreal. He also plays with the idea of the film’s familiarity, as a scene set in the courtyard of a church seems to work directly against a similar shot at the beginning of Viridiana. While Viridiana’s had serious, plot-generating conversation and tracked from right to left, Tristana tracks from left to right in the same setting as Tristana poises a humorous question to her keeper. It’s as if Buñuel is telling us that this film is both a reflection and an opposite of that one.
Mostly, though, it’s just a zoom on Viridiana’s first act. Tristana is entirely about the title character trying to escape from Don Lope (Rey) and the incident that eventually takes her back to him (it’s not death this time, but it’s equally dramatic). Her desired man is Horacio (Nero), whose character is hard to describe as anything other than a plot device. Lope, meanwhile, is unapologetic in his atheism –a mark that, at the time, was enough to classify one as a liberal– but he’s hopelessly conservative in other ways. “If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home,” he says, and it’s strangely literal when all is said and done.
That’s the main issue with Tristana, is that it explores its themes in dialogue far more than in visuals. In addition to the Electra-enabling line above, Lope proclaims himself the defender of the weak and innocent on multiple occasions and the police are invoked numerous times as symbols of power without ever actually doing anything. For a film that has a fairly large supporting role for a deaf and mute character, it’s ironic that it depends so much on hearing the spoken word, and indeed, these underdogs are the only ones not to emerge victorious, as if some disadvantages are too crippling to overcome. More than just mundane, the reliance on dialogue approaches hypocritical, though to its credit, it’s never incompetent. Tristana may be over-written but it is not poorly written, and on the strength of its aesthetics, it’s a competent but inessential work from an always-worthwhile director.