Did Buñuel Hide Subversive Political Meaning in 'Tristana'?

Catherine Deneuve shines in this simple tale that might be about more than meets the eye.


Director: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero
Distributor: Cohen
Rated: PG
Release date: 2013-03-12

As far as legendary filmmakers go, Luis Buñuel is one of the most fascinating in terms of how it’s seemingly impossible to pin him down as being good at just one thing. When thinking of his oeuvre, the first thing that might come to mind is the famous eye-cutting scene from Un Chien Andalou. Yet the truth is that the director didn’t entirely dedicate his talents to creating surrealist films. Watching something like the stark Los olvidados or the campy Susana, we find ourselves in the presence of a man who had a few distinctive obsessions (as one must to become a world renowned auteur) but his movies can’t help but feel like disconnected fragments of one fascinating being.

Tristana, which was shot towards the end of his career, takes place in Toledo, Spain and was based on a 19th century book by Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós. The director had started work on adapting the novel in 1962, after censors in Spain rejected a script he submitted, however, it would take him a whole decade before he would be able to see the project come to life. Outspoken against the Spanish dictatorship, he moved to Mexico, a place where he would experience a period of high productivity. It seems as if the one way you can divide Buñuel’s works is by identifying them by the country where he made them.

Tristana may have the feel of something like his earlier melodramas and contains no real traces of surrealism, except perhaps for the way in which he has French actress Catherine Deneuve play a Spanish character, her voice obviously dubbed to the point where it becomes distracting. Was this a way to take audience members out of the tragic nature of the story and ground them in the reality surrounding them? Or is this just a technicality, which because it happens to be in a Buñuel film, we are left wondering about?

In terms of storytelling Tristana is as straightforward as they come. Deneuve plays the title character, a beautiful orphan adopted by a nobleman called Don Lope Garrido (the larger than life Fernando Rey). Captivated by his beauty and innocence, Don Lope falls for his daughter and makes her his wife, in practical if not legal or religious terms. As if the arrival of sex opened a new world for her, Tristana begins to see outside the confines of her sad life and begins an affair with an artist by the name of Horacio (a stunning Franco Nero).

The film, in any case, deals more with Tristana’s coming-of-age than it does with any more Buñuel-ian themes; although, there is a lot to be said about the way in which we see how the wealthy take advantage of the poor to the point where they believe they can own them. In Tristana’s change from wallflower to tragic heroine (even villainess by the end...) we are left wondering if the director was suggesting that it is only through the power of knowledge via artistic enlightenment that the lower classes and his beloved “forgotten ones” can avenge the injustices the world has wrought upon them. Is art then an escape or the solution?

The film shares themes with one of his previous works, Viridiana, which was also written by Pérez Galdós and which makes us ponder on why the director had such a preference for telling old fashioned melodramas when it came to adapting literary works. Did he feel there was something subversive in having classic-but-rarely-groundbreaking literature be captured on film? Were there layers of hidden text that he inserted but that which we’ve failed to notice? Stories about the making of Tristana, reveal that in fact the director was aware that everything might mean something and knew that some of these things might be impossible for us as audience members to detect and it’s in his use of twisted humor that we remember why he’s such a highly regarded filmmaker.

Tristana may not be his greatest movie, but there is something touching in Deneuve’s childlike candor and eventual self-destruction, as well as some truly perverse humor in the way in which Don Lope reminds her that he can be either father or husband to her at his convenience. And let’s not even get started on the way in which Tristana realizes her fate might have never been hers to begin with... If you’re seeing yet another symbol for church and state in such metaphors, fear not, for you are not alone.

The Cohen Media Group have done an impressive work in updating Tristana to high definition. The transfer can’t be called anything other than exquisite: Nero and Deneuve are so beautiful to behold that we want to freeze frame every other second and bask in their otherworldly looks. Included in this Blu-ray is a commentary track with Deneuve who reveals many tidbits that make viewing the movie even more pleasurable. There is also a short documentary featuring analysis by scholar Peter William Evans, an alternate ending and two trailers.


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