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With: Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Franco Nero, Lola Gaos, Antonio Casas, Jesús Fernández, Vicente Soler, José Calvo, Fernando Cebrián
Written by: Luis Buñuel, Julio Alejandro, based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 03/29/1970

Tristana (1970)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Getting a Leg Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even in retrospect, it's hard not to talk about Luis Buñuel's Tristana (1970) as a mild disappointment. It features two of Buñuel's most famous stars, Catherine Deneuve, who had been in Belle de Jour (1967), and Fernando Rey, who had been in Viridiana (1961), and would go on to star in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). All of those are among Buñuel's best, cleverest, funniest, sexiest, and most outrageous films, and Tristana doesn't seem to compare to them.

Then there's the odd absence of Buñuel's usual writing partner from this period, Jean-Claude Carri�re, who co-wrote six Buñuel films, almost in a row: Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Belle de Jour, The Milky Way (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire.

So poor Tristana seems virtually surrounded by films that are more vibrant and more fun. Added to the fact that it has more or less disappeared from circulation lately, and it has become something of a lost film. However, if we remove all of these handicaps and look at Tristana with fresh eyes, it turns out to be one of the great director's subtlest works, made with skill and filled with compassion.

Deneuve (who was about 27 at the time) stars as the naïve young Tristana, who, after the death of her mother, goes to live with Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a man of little means and great ideals who insists on living like an aristocrat. He even has a hawk-nosed, but kindly servant, Saturna (Lola Gaos), who cares for her deaf-mute son, Saturno (Jesús Fernández).

Don Lope sends mixed signals to Tristana, letting her know that he's her father figure and that she's free, but at the same time, issues orders and commands and keeps her on a short leash. It's not long before she meets and falls in love with a handsome artist, Horacio (Franco Nero, in his only film for Buñuel). They run away together, but return when Tristana develops a tumor in her leg. The leg must be amputated, and Tristana's personality changes. She becomes more beautiful, but also unbearably cold. She sends Horacio away and agrees to marry Don Lope.

According to a famous Hollywood legend, Alfred Hitchcock met Buñuel at a dinner and simply kept saying, "Ah... Tristana's leg." Buñuel often used feet and leg imagery in his movies for fetishistic power, but rarely was it this extreme. Don Lope even has a prophetic (and utterly mistaken) line much earlier in the movie: "If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home." The loss of the leg represents both the loss of freedom and the loss of love, or warmth, or caring. Yet the peculiar thing is how much more strikingly beautiful Tristana is without the leg. True, she's wearing more makeup, but now she has an incredible sexual power, whereas the earlier Tristana was simply mousy and sweet. In one moment, she shows her breasts (off camera) to Saturno, and he reacts with something like shock, running into the woods.

The man/woman power dynamic that Buñuel explores blatantly in other movies (especially That Obscure Object of Desire) is handled less explosively here. Don Lopo remains in charge of many things, mainly his ideals. He refuses to oversee a duel of honor in which the winner only draws first blood (i.e. not to the death). Tristana remarks that he only seems powerful when he's wearing his suit, and with his moustache properly combed and shaped -- Buñuel includes several scenes of Don Lopo grooming himself -- whereas when he's in his pajamas or in his sickbed, his power fades. It's superficial.

Aside from his surreal and dreamlike imagery, Buñuel was never a flashy director. He preferred simple shots, evenly lit, and only modest camera movements. But more than forty years after his debut Un Chien Andalou, he knew how best to get the proper emotional and intellectual ideas out of his shots, and knew infallibly which angles to choose. This is a very polished, very tightly constructed film, perhaps even more so than some of his more playful efforts. (It received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, but lost to Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.)

If you're new to Buñuel, Tristana may not be the place to start, but if you're familiar with his other work, it's refreshing to see how mature and restrained he could be. A new restored print of Tristana -- in Spanish with English subtitles -- is currently making the rounds in selected theaters, so either way, don't miss this chance to experience the work of a genuine master of the cinema.
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