Thursday, October 20, 2016

Film review: TRISTANA (Luis Buñuel, 1970)

Tristana (Catherine Deneuve), a recently orphaned God-fearing beauty, is given sanctuary by her new legal guardian Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a crusty old womaniser who hates religion, sympathises with the underbelly of society, and likes to backpat himself for being so anti-establishment. Much like the character Rey played in That Obscure Object of Desire, he develops an infatuation with the female lead, and it’s not long before he’s thrown caution to his wind regarding taking Tristana under his wing, choosing to take her under him instead.

From some of the other Buñuel titles I’ve reviewed, it’s evident that the man has got sex on the mind, but his depiction of Don Lope’s carnal instincts and Tristana’s grudging acquiescence to them in this film are surprisingly PG-rated (although, given the mature themes and disturbing imagery in this film, I thought the MPAA awarding this film a PG-13, made more sense) and visually restrained. The unsettling, Woody Allen-esque relationship is portrayed with a few fleeting shots of Tristana impassively getting undressed, before the scene ends. Surprisingly subtle for Buñuel, but it suits the atonal style of the film, and its messages about the double-standards of religious Spanish society.

Deneuve and Rey, two of Brunel’s favourite collaborators, prosper under his direction. As the eponymous lead, Deneuve alchemizes Tristana’s spirit effortlessly. At the beginning, she is a carefree, wide-eyed young girl who just wishes to honour her mother's love of pray. By the end, and not altogether surprisingly given what she has been through,  as her character develops, she is a resolute and cold-hearted, and absolutely God-less.

It’s evident that she’s repulsed by her legal guardian’s grabby hands (not the first time a Guardian's been handsy, amirite?), but she grins and bears it in a disquietingly silent manner. As in Belle de Jour, Deneuve portrays her character taking everything just accepting what comes to her under a façade of equanimity, which only leaves the audience more tantalised about what she’s really thinking.

Fernando Rey portrays a monster with more than a small touch of Humbert Humbert. Tristana is an unusual story because it’s not so much a case of Stockholm Syndrome, as the woman coming back to take revenge – revenge by mistreatment – on the man who so impulsively, selfishly, debased her. And her interpretation of the best kind of justice is to simultaneously be with him (in legal union) and not be with him (in emotion and physically).

The central dynamic between Tristana and Don Lope is fascinating. Despite the fact that he defiled her and she rightly resents him for taking her innocence, this is juxtaposed hatred is with her inherent Christian grace towards him, which consists of gratitude for taking her in when she was destitute, as well as a giddy sense of triumph later when he gets older and more pathetic, and she, more beautiful. These emotions come together to create a cocktail of power that she lauds over him.

Buñuel is known for his surrealist elements, but that was the component I liked least about Tristana - Don Lope’s decapitated head swinging from a bell was off-beat but now looks dated. Tristana also lacks the moments of playful levity that The Diary of a Chambermaid and That Obscure Object of Desire had, rendering it a more straightforward piece of storytelling, although in doing so, it doesn't quite reach the peaks of those two titles. Finally, the fact that the film was shot and set in Toledo, Spain, yet the characters speak French, is a tad jarring.

It’s not the best spin on Lolita in a film I’ve seen - that would be Sam Mendes’ incredible American Beauty, but, like That Obscure Object of Desire, survives the test of time well in its astute dissection of gender politics and the blurred, and often confusing, line between love and hate. 

Buñuel  for all his seedy voyeursim, understands that sex is just as much about emotional control as it is about physical lust, and his detached, capable direction, Deneuve’s suitably frosty performance (quite literally, given the film's aloof coda) and the compelling story make for a bizarre, but thoroughly watchable experience.



If you enjoyed this, all my film reviews are collated here.

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