Tristana occupies an unusual spot in Luis Buñuel's filmography. Flanked by late-period masterworks that represent the culmination and perfection of the old-guard surrealist's long-cherished obsessions, the film is often relegated to the role of overlooked middle child. One obvious reason: Tristana is easily the most straightforward and naturalistic of Buñuel's films since he churned out Mexican melodramas along the lines of Susana and A Woman Without Love. Seldom given over to the Borgesian narrative trickery and disorienting dream imagery that mark films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, apart from the recurring image of a severed head that doubles as the clapper of a church bell, Tristana is nevertheless a virtual compendium of Buñuel's characteristic themes and motifs.
If the story of Tristana bears more than a passing resemblance to Buñuel's earlier Viridiana, it's hardly a coincidence, since both are based on novels by "the Spanish Balzac," Benito Pérez Galdós. After the death of her mother, innocent young Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) falls into the amorous clutches of her new guardian, middle-aged lothario Don Lope (Fernando Rey). An aristocratic idler who excoriates "the curse of work" while simultaneously hocking his patrimony item by item, Don Lope is another in the line of poignantly contradictory figures that Rey played for Buñuel. Unapologetically atheistic and a defender of the underprivileged (as in the scene where he misinforms a gendarme about the escape route of a fleeing purse-snatcher), Don Lope typifies a certain kind of fin-de-siècle liberalism, which makes his crassly erotic exploitation of Tristana all the more inexcusable.
Under Don Lope's onerous tutelage, Tristana sheds the passivity with which she initially submitted to his advances, transforming inexorably over the course of the film from naïf to femme fatale (or perhaps, since this is Buñuel, exterminating angel would be more accurate). The erotic antagonism at the bottom of their relationship points the way to Buñuel's final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, which takes far more playful potshots at its theme. On the other hand, Don Lope's chauvinistic slogan, "If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home," provides too obvious foreshadowing for Tristana's ultimate fate. Similarly, arriviste artist Horacio (Franco Nero), the third side of the romantic triangle that obligatorily arises, never transcends his perfunctory functionality. The character, as Buñuel once admitted in an interview, exists as little more than pretext to advance the sudsy plot. Seeds of discontent are equally sown in the film's abrupt ending and elliptical coda that inexplicably rewinds the narrative back to a point that seems like a default reset.
Still, there are more than a few striking images and intriguing ideas to be extracted from Tristana. The influence of chance on the course of our lives—a theme central to, among others, The Phantom of Liberty—crops up here in the form of Tristana's little caprices, her stubborn insistence on choosing between seemingly identical objects (chickpeas, columns, roads), one of which leads to her first meeting with Horacio. And then there's the scene where Tristana exposes herself to the deaf-mute Saturno (Jesús Fernández), standing hieratic and aloof on her balcony like "la belle dame sans merci" out of some Romantic-era idyll, while her bemused smile only hints at the depths of her cruelty. Or take the moment, during a visit to the Toledo Cathedral, when Tristana leans over the marble tomb of an archbishop, gazing in rapt fascination at the touches of putrefaction that the artist dutifully, if morbidly, rendered immortal in his artwork. Corporeal disintegration is obviously much on Tristana's mind, since she recently lost a leg to some unnamed disease, but it seems a trifle arbitrary to reduce this polyphonic image to its lowest-common denominator, especially as the icy wind of death blows throughout this chilly film—and not just at its conclusion.