WARNING: This review may contain minor spoilers.
Just as Arthur Hiller was putting the finishing touches on his schmaltzy Love Story, fellow director Luis Buñuel was in Spain working on its perfect antithesis, the delicious tale of hate that is Tristana. Both films may end with the death of one of their leads, yet there’s no room for sentimentality here - nor indeed a mawkish theme - just Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey locked in a perverse relationship that defies an easy reading. She becomes his ward following the death of her mother, and he slowly takes advantage of this “flower of perfect innocence”, in doing so setting about a mutual, yet inseperable loathing and delicates slices of revenge.
What’s so enticing about Tristana is its wiliness over being pinned down; just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on the characters, Buñuel muddies the waters and forces us to take new bearings. Certainly, there are progressions, perhaps even logical ones, but nothing is quite so simple. We see Deneuve develop from a naïve blank to someone with her own thoughts and impulses, yet she’s hardly film’s heroine despite being its principle, and titular, focus. Likewise, it’s impossible to not to see Rey’s character in relation to the uncle-rapist he essayed previously for Buñuel in Viridiana and as before he’s treated by the director in a less than favourable light (we first hear of him being “one of the few real gentlemen left” only for Buñuel to cut to him unapologetically leching over some random female in the street), yet there’s still a modicum of sympathy courtesy of the actor’s old world charisma. Only Franco Nero, as an artist who has an affair with Deneuve, seems to be who he appears, but then his feelings for her are used merely as a counterpoint to her hatred of Rey; a tiny love story at the centre of all this bile, thus making it even more emphatic.
Tristana’s overall execution enhances this aspect further. This film is shot in cold, clinical colours, all greys, whites and browns, and they find their equivalent in the editing devices. Each shot is cut in the same manner, not quite as abrupt as jump cuts but without such techniques as dissolves and the like. Combined with the complete lack of music (the chimes of the church bells and the otherworldly sonics of the final scene are the nearest we get) there is little sense of time passing even though Buñuel’s narrative freely skips the weeks and months. As before our sense of orientation is continually stifled (characters marry, become ill - all whilst we believe that only mere hours have elapsed), yet this only imbues Tristana with a greater sense of cohesion. Just as we think Deneuve has escaped Rey’s clutches, Buñuel forces her back within the space of two scenes; the director as manipulator, albeit with a blackly humorous glee.
Indeed, if we are best to understand Tristana then it is through Buñuel that we should do so. Aged 70 at the time of its production, this is an old man’s film and dappled in autobiography. Though 17 years younger, Rey is, as head been before and would be again, the director’s surrogate. The loathing for all of Rey’s Buñuel characters (from Viridiana to That Obscure Object of Desire) is a much wider loathing of the Spanish bourgeoisie and hence, of course, a loathing of Buñuel himself. Yet here, though old and an increasing encumbrance, the connection seems stronger here than elsewhere, this self-hatred taking centre stage and never quite dulled by the slight pangs of sympathy. Cinema’s great foot fetishist (think of L’Age d’or and only one shot springs immediately to mind) allows himself both Deneuve as subservient slipper provider and as the avenger who has her right leg amputated as the ultimate, if not final, revenge. The pleasure and pain he takes in both is palpable, meaning that even if Tristana’s characters remain ambiguous, we are still entitled to a startling portrait of the man in charge. Perhaps he should have gone the Fellini route and called it Buñuel’s Tristana.
The static menus and scratchy credits don’t inspire the greatest of faiths, but Tristana is thereafter granted with a reasonable presentation. Transferred non-anamorphically at a ratio of 1.66:1, the film is blighted by intermittent damage but largely impresses with its mostly crisp imagery and rich colours. The reel changes also prove cumbersome, but this is never less than watchable, even if hardly remarkable.
Tristana’s soundtrack comes in two versions, Spanish language or French language (both two-channel mono), with differing (non-optional) subtitles to accommodate the slight tweaks in translation though both share the same print (and French credits). Both are as reasonable as the print quality inasmuch as they display slight flaws albeit ones that never truly distract from the central qualities. Indeed, to pick one is largely down to personal preference and dependent on whether you wish to have Deneuve dubbed (as she is in the Spanish version) or the supporting cast (as they are in the French version). That said, the diegetic noise in the Spanish version is heavily emphasised with birdsong and footsteps booming out of the speakers, whereas the French option renders these as largely inconsequential. In this respect, the Spanish is perhaps the more preferable of the two as it makes the world of Tristana just seem that little more enclosed and thus the drama all the more intense.
Other the soundtrack option Tristana’s special features amount only to an eight-page booklet which contains new sleeve notes plus an archive review from the Monthly Film Bulletin courtesy of Tom Milne.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:08:42