Posted in: by David Willingham, Contributors, Essays


[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The camera trucks slowly left, unobtrusively, almost cautiously, as if to move out of Tristana’s way as she and Saturna approach the group of boys. It cranes above the soccer skirmish to view the scene from a dominating remove, observing the ritual conflict—a game like any other, designed to formalize the release of aggressions. Handheld, the camera mingles abruptly with running feet, tangles with the action. Then it isolates the spontaneous but intentional violation of the rules and its unregenerate perpetrator. And finally, the camera seeks out and frames Tristana and Saturno as they share a wordless but evocative moment of mutual appreciation.

Like this prologue, what follows is, itself, a kind of game with rules to be obeyed or broken, with fallible judges who base decisions on a limited point of view and on a personal ethic, with conflict and examples of behavior under stress, with an outcome that separates the winners from the losers although both may be so battered by the struggle that only the scorekeeper could tell the victor from the vanquished. In the first scenes we have most of the thematic elements of Tristana’s story and of Buñuel’s world, conflict, temptation and surrender to it; transgression and retribution; the fascinating appeal of unorthodox behavior; a hint of the power of sex to manipulate and control; order and anarchy; rebellion; and irresistible impulses that clash with acceptable modes of social conduct. We also have an example of those startling, enigmatic Buñuelian images that defy logic: Tristana, like Eve, tempts and rewards Saturno with an apple. An Apple? Where did she get it and what possessed her to bring it with her? Why did she single him out? How do you explain the apparently instantaneous communication between them? For the answers to these and other interesting questions, read on.

All of Buñuel’s films are based on conflict; and that conflict creates the dynamic energy that propels them along their way. His world has a variety of built-in checks and balances—the church, a social class system, history, the family—that attempt to provide stability and order. But time passes, and human nature is unpredictable and capricious, and those checks and balances often succeed only in exacerbating the situation. His characters reel under the pressure of forces contesting within them, and they careen through life seeking equilibrium but finding only momentary relief from their tribulations. After repeated failures they finally give themselves over with a vengeance—sometimes funny, sometimes grim—to that persistent inner imbalance. Tristana is no exception.

Catherine Deneuve in ‘Tristana’

She appears initially as an innocent young girl, almost as a novitiate, protected, naïve, clothed in formal mourning black. Buñuel intensifies this quasi-religious impression in the next sequence by having her wear a white headpiece while respectfully packing her dead mother’s belongings. She accepts Don Lope’s commands without resistance even though they require the virtual destruction of her heritage, and follows him obediently through the city streets, submitting docilely to his quixotic explanation of authority. But beneath this chaste exterior there beats the heart of an as yet undefined being. Don Lope’s fatherly remonstrances to the contrary—”Who would harm you living with me? Where would you be safer?”—we know the old bastard grows horns and a tail when he sees a skirt, and we suspect that the stage has been set for Tristana’s definition. And a not entirely unwilling one at that. Tristana’s outing with the two boys to the belltower gives us another of those inexplicable Buñuelian touches: how did her skirt come to be tucked up there anyway? and what more natural response than to touch that inviting thigh? Tristana, the virgin and the temptress, experiences these conflicting tendencies before the fateful encounter with Don Lope—we’ve already seen how she behaved during her first meeting with Saturno—and under his tutelage her latent inclinations begin to burgeon into a full-blown awareness of her power over men.

But, before going on with Tristana’s education, a word or two about how Buñuel shows us things. As I mentioned earlier, the camera moves fairly broadly during the soccer game. And well it should, you might say, it being out-of-doors and all. But consistently, throughout the film, when Tristana ventures beyond the pale of Don Lope’s immediate influence, the camera transcribes gracefully moving arcs around her, situating her in new locales, giving her room to expand, to experience the variety of life in the streets which her guardian’s overzealous protection interferes with whenever possible. And when she accidentally stumbles onto Don Horacio, the camera at one point swoops around and down from a considerable height to situate them in the rubble of a fallen temple while they lay the foundation for a new possibility. Inside, on the other hand, particularly in Don Lope’s house where every line of dialogue suggests reasons for his obsessive desire to maintain Tristana’s dependence on him, the camera creates a claustrophobic, almost prison-like atmosphere by remaining fixedly near the characters, observing the slightest tics and nuances of response to Lope’s innuendos. And at that distance, it observes the gradual and subtle transformation of power into need and submission into dominance.

There is nothing especially flashy about the camerawork in this film (nothing like the grittily realistic grays and inspired compositions of Figueroa’s photography in, for instance, Los olvidados) except for the frequently stunning but unostentatious positioning of the camera’s eye. Who will forget the image of Tristana bending down into the frame to touch a cold marble statue with her fresh, warm lips? And the picture of Don Lope wending his unsteady way back into a darkened alley after being humiliated by Don Horacio remains in my mind’s eye as among the film’s most evocative. (The father and son team who shot this film worked on Viridiana too.) Buñuel also gives us visual evidence that substantiates otherwise imprecise or unclear information. Tristana tells Don Lope that she can tell the difference between two seemingly identical things, like courtyard pillars, and goes on to select one of them as her preferred. Later we see her carefully place two garbanzo beans apart from the others and then, for some unfathomable reason, select one over the other with obvious pleasure at her choice. While this incident may puzzle us, the evidence nevertheless begins to accumulate, and when she decides she wants to take the street to the right instead of going to the left, we realize that her system of choosing between alternatives leads her directly to deciding whether to go with Don Horacio or stay with Don Lope. Choosing, for Tristana, is her means of asserting her identity, of imposing her will on the flow of events and on the interactions of individuals around her. What, you might ask, does the choice between Don Horacio and Don Lope mean? And who are Don Lope and Don Horacio, anyway?

Fernando Rey and Catherine Deneuve in ‘Tristana’

Don Lope is revealed to us initially with a typical Buñuelian flourish. As the soccer referee and Tristana chat about Don Lope’s virtues, Buñuel has already cut to the next scene. Randy Don Lope unabashedly propositions a passing maiden and, after being rebuffed, skillfully recovers his composure in time to doff his hat at a respectable lady who casts a sanctimoniously reproachful eye on the old reprobate. And indeed he is. No bones about it. “When it comes to women. I don’t believe in sin.” Honor, yes. Sin, no! and may the devil take the hindmost. Lope can barely contain himself (or Tristana for hat matter) when he comforts her after the first nightmare. “You screamed as though you saw the devil. When you were little, you screamed every time you saw me. Just like this time.” Tristana’s prescient knowledge apparently extends even to her childhood. But little does Don Lope know that his casual, reassuring remark doesn’t go quite far enough in drawing the comparison between himself and the tormentor he imagines. The bell-clapper that Tristana pushes back and forth in her dream bears a strong resemblance to a penis, and in the next shot has been transformed into Lope’s own head.

Lope is a man of resolute convictions. “Men like me protect the weak, whatever the circumstances.” Called on to referee a duel, he refuses to compromise the code of ethics that his outdated aristocratic heritage has provided him. Even faced with the prospect of bankruptcy, he steadfastly maintains his dignity by not bargaining with the pawnbroker or groveling before his wealthy sister. But Tristana’s strong will and need for independence can’t be contained by the inflexible Lope, and she seeks other outlets for her energy and youthful vitality. Lope, more and more vain and growing ever older, becomes in fact the caricature that his servant and friends referred to in jest or pique. When Don Horacio finally forces the confrontation, Don Lope drives Tristana from his house, still unable to reach an accommodation with reality. Desperately alone, he suffers from the irresolvable conflict between his own intransigence and the power over him that Tristana has come to wield. In his suffering he regains a significant measure of dignity that he lost trying to restrain her. But things are at an impasse and, characteristically, Buñuel’s brand of fate intervenes.

But before that, what about Don Horacio? He represents the new order, the artsy bohemian element, equivalent to the moneylenders that Don Lope despises. Horacio’s proposal of marriage is rejected for reasons which Don Lope made clear to Tristana: married couples reek of the “sick odor of conjugal bliss.” Like the politicians and policemen who feed on the weakness of the little people, artists who desecrate the sacred grounds of the past by painting pictures of peasants holding flagons of wine in the ruins of a church or by striking a nobleman with a fist deserves to be ignored into nonexistence by the gentry. Their reign will pass and justice will be done. Don Horacio returns Tristana to her father/husband when reasoning fails and when the possibility of death prompts her to reappraise that which Don Lope offered. Don Horacio fades into the background, having sprouted a respectable moustache in the meantime.

Now for that fate I mentioned a couple of minutes ago. And what better manifestation of it in a film by a man more than passingly interested in feet and shoes and crooked and deformed legs for more than forty years than an amputation followed by an artificial leg! And an artificial leg so uncomfortable to wear that it keeps turning up here and there on the furniture! Not only that, but an amputation involving the limb of the most lovely and desirable woman Buñuel ever cast in his movies, to boot! Don Horacio gives up in smallminded helplessness, but Don Lope is more than equal to the task and tells Saturna excitedly that once Tristana’s back in the house she’ll never leave it again. True. But as a result Don Lope’s hegemony, his staunch atheism, his bombastic rejection of the church, the nouveau-riche and anybody else in a position of power, in short, his entire value system, turns topsy-turvy. Now he contributes to police orphanages and not only allows priests into his garden, but invites them into his kitchen to share cups of hot chocolate with them on wintry nights and listen to their thinly disguised jockeying for position on his list of beneficiaries. When Tristana ruthlessly humiliates him on their black-wedding night “Don’t be ridiculous. At your age?” he accepts without complaining, his power broken, his need to keep her with him overcoming his sense of outrage.

Catherine Deneuve in ‘Tristana’

Tristana has been transformed, completely now, by the catastrophe and openly expresses her imperiousness and disdain. The series of choices she makes during her youth have brought her (one is tempted to say, inevitably) back to Don Lope’s house. There she will spend the rest of her life being wheeled from the house to the garden to church to the park and back to the house again, giving polite passersby, servants and husband coldness in return for their formula-like but friendly inquiries after her health. She has chosen her lot—although an unfortunate one, the lesser of two evils—and now asserts her identity by perversely accentuating its limitations, pacing back and forth, attending church to flaunt her indifference, even dressing up to seduce a deaf-mute. Again wordlessly, she traps Saturno, seducing him easily with her greater sophistication and experience, and succeeds in driving him further back into nature than he has ever been. She, like Saturno, senses more about people than can be communicated through speech. Originally they are like amoral children—”He’s not bad, he just gets strange ideas”—ready to receive the imprint of whatever influence they come in contact with. Saturno loafs his way into a comfortable sinecure at Lope’s.

Tristana, on the other hand, learns her lessons the hard way. It isn’t long after she moves into Don Lope’s house that the angelic girl who brought his slippers finds that she feels equal parts revulsion and attraction for the old man. He insists on her independence, and in the process nurtures an awareness by his own example that the individual maintains his independence only in proportion to exercising his choice. The giggle that bursts out after Lope kisses her hungrily in church reveals to us and to her a fascination with her power over him and a curiosity about where it will lead. I don’t know what the significance is, but I’m sure it’s not by accident that the fateful kissing scene begins with a kiss of a cold stone statue and ends with the kiss of an old man whose fires don’t have long to burn, and both kisses elicit amusement from Tristana. For a while, Tristana’s most fulfilling choices involve exercising her power over Don Lope. Grim as the prospects are, they are all she has. An accessory to the formation of her own identity, she is also, perhaps, an accessory to its figurative death. Whether the scenes of her life that pass before her eyes at the moment of Don Lope’s demise signify that his death releases her from his control, or whether those flashback shots signify that his death releases her from his control, or whether those flashback shots signify her own death now that he is gone, remains unclear to me. Whatever the explanation—if indeed there is one—I’m more interested in the process than in the final conclusion, and it seems to me that Buñuel is, too. Lucky for us!

Spain, 1970. Direction: Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, after the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. Cinematography (Eastmancolor): José A. Agayo. Art direction: Enrique Alarcón. Editing: Pedro del Rey.
The Players: Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero, Lola Gaos, Jesús Fernández.

Copyright © 1975 David Willingham