Because it showcases so many of the director’s signature obsessions, the mundane but nonetheless competent Tristana may be the perfect entry point for the Luis Buñuel novice. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve, dubbed in most versions of the film) goes to live with the liberal Don Lope (Fernando Rey) after the death of her mother and is subsequently polluted by the hypocritical old man over the course of several years. Though she’s free to do as she pleases, Tristana is still stifled by the tyrannical and demanding older man. She leaves the house in order to live with a handsome young artist, Horacio (Franco Nero), but returns two years later after she’s diagnosed with a leg tumor (only in a Buñuel film!). Once she’s fitted with a prosthetic leg, the embittered Tristana finally gets her revenge by killing Don Lope with the same illogical masochism that he suffocated her with when he took her under his care.
Both the names of the film’s characters and the beautiful Toledo setting suggest a Shakespearean battle of the sexes, but I can’t imagine Shakespeare allowing a metaphor to be worn so carelessly and humorlessly on the sleeve of any of his creations. Subtly shot by the great José F. Aguayo (Viridiana), Tristana basically boils down to a collection of battle sequences between the weak and the strong: lawlessness versus authority, the crippled versus the non-crippled, the old versus the young. Buñuel is clearly coasting here, lazily entertaining himself by evoking this power dynamic in everything from a rabid dog being shot down by local police to the dialogue, which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. “Police represent force and I always defend the underdog,” Don Lope says to Tristana after saving a young thief from the law by sending a pursuing officer down the wrong alleyway.
Fans of the director are likely to see Tristana as a routine facsimile of both Él and Viridiana (also co-written by Julio Alejandro), though the film’s latter half unnervingly anticipates the bizarre surrealist panic of That Obscure Object of Desire. Because Buñuel’s symbols have a mythic power all their own, Tristana comes alive the closer it moves toward its evocation of the titular heroine’s triumphant victory over her decaying master. A random prosthetic sits on top of Don Lope’s fireplace, foreshadowing Tristana’s fate with a sober delirium that’s missing from the more obvious asides that tend to explicitly point to the film’s all-too-obvious thesis (most criminal: “If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home”).
There’s no escaping the film’s vaginal imagery: Tristana is teased by two cripples on her way to a belfry via a cramped stairway; finds love after walking fearfully down an alleyway; and contemplates her final battle against Don Lupe after walking incessantly through the main hallway of the house on crutches. There’s a naughty secret world to the film that’s as alluring as it is frustrating, perhaps because Buñuel deliberates refuses to open the door to that world. The deaf-mute son of Don Lupe’s maid constantly locks himself inside closets and it’s assumed he’s pleasuring himself. Fascinated by the older Tristana, he’s later seduced by the dominatrix when she walks stealthily onto a veranda and flashes him her breasts. (This sequence no doubt informs a similar sequence in Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool.) True to the film’s cock-tease tone, Deneuve’s breasts are hidden below the filmic frame. And like her breasts, Tristana ultimately gets the upper hand.