‘Tristana’ kicks off with two brilliant scenes.
In the first, a football match between deaf mutes erupts into argument after a blatant foul – all in the most demonstrative sign language. It shouldn’t be funny and it’s certainly not politically correct. But it’s definitely the former and the hell with the latter.
In the second, the predatory Don Lope (Fernando Rey) strolls across a piazza, tweaking his moustache in suggestive manner. Hailing a young woman (who’s probably old enough to be his granddaughter), he asks where she’s going. “To find a sweetheart,” she gaily replies. “You’ve found him,” Don Lope leers. She protests that he’s too old for her. “I’m not too old,” Don Lope assures her; “the devil’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive.”
Fantastic stuff. Oh, that the rest of the film had played out in like manner.
‘Tristana’ is the only “blip” in the string of masterpieces that define the last two decades of Buñuel’s career – from ‘Viridiana’ to his swansong ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’.
An adaptation of a novel by Benito Perez Galdos, the story sees the young and innocent Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) delivered into Don Lope’s care following the death of her parents. The old lecher soon corrupts her. Spurning him, Tristana takes up with debonair artist Horacio (Franco Nero). Two years later, the increasingly lachrymose Don Lope jumps at the chance to have her back when a serious illness and the amputation of her leg pre-empt a parting of the ways between her and Horacio. But the Tristana who resumes residence in the Don’s household, lost limb notwithstanding, is more beautiful and infinitely less passive than the one who left. The stations are reversed.
And that’s basically it.
In the hands of Douglas Sirk it could have been unintentionally hilarious. In the hands of Pedro Almodovar, intentionally so. As a Buñuel film, however, it’s curiously anaemic. Re-uniting the director with Deneuve three years after ‘Belle de Jour’, none of the erotic frisson and barrier-pushing intimations of perversity are present. Although Deneuve was never better than when playing ice queens, she seems awkward as Tristana. Franco Nero – never better than as Django – just seems out of place. Thanks be for the presence of Fernando Rey: magnificent, mischievous and bristling with amoral cool in virtually every film he appeared in (and certainly those he made with Buñuel), he’s the only hint of life in ‘Tristana’.
What truly disappoints, given Buñuel’s aversion to critics foisting ‘meanings’ onto his work, is how thuddingly obvious the Freudian imagery is. Aside from a last-minute sequence of ingeniously orchestrated images guaranteed to instigate ongoing debate as to their narrative implication, it’s all so ordinary. And Buñuel was never a film-maker to whom the ordinary was suited.