Home Video Hovel- Tristana, by Dayne Linford
“Which one do you like best?” Tristana asks of her guardian/father surrogate/husband/rapist, Don Lope, referring to a group of pillars surrounding the two characters. Don Lope balks – “One is like the other. None, or any,” but he cannot understand how perfectly this delineates the relationship she has with him, and with every man after him, mocking her as she picks one pillar as her favorite. Lope has limited himself by picking no pillars, refusing each their evident uniqueness, a sly jab at Lope’s professed socialism, which proclaims the evident worth of each individual by relegating them to being like the other, representative of none, or any. However, Tristana is even further limited than he is, pushed by her innocence and the masculine Spanish culture into picking only one, or the other. Luis Bunuel, a director of some note I am told, very skillfully underscores the limited options at hand for Tristana, as she carefully chooses between two pillars, two bells, two pieces of food, and two men. Unfortunately for Tristana, she is to discover that her choice is meaningless – one is like the other, ultimately, and will decide her fate for her.
In another example of a motif layered skillfully throughout the film, Tristana begins her film mourning, her mother having recently passed, and coming under the guardianship of Don Lope, a well-respected aristocrat of sorts. He encourages her to treat him as her father, and briefly attempts to return the affection as he would to a daughter. But Lope is a man with a considered weakness for beautiful women, and very shortly he pushes himself into Tristana’s bed. This is not violent rape, but rape it is, Tristana too demure, too frightened to refuse, but never acquiescing either. Perhaps to assuage a dirty conscience, almost certainly because he actually believes it, Lope vociferously assures Tristana of her complete freedom, that she could leave any moment and not even a word would escape his lips. But Tristana, slowly coming to her bitter realization of the truth of Spanish society, and her position in it, knows better. Even as she pushes back against Lope’s developing tyranny, she does so with complete knowledge that the larger society sees her as a worthless woman, to be used by each man in his turn. Only a young artist named Horacio, played by Franco Nero of Django fame, is willing to overlook it, though he, Tristana, and the audience soon understand this is no mark of his egalitarianism, but simply his passing lust.
A word on the performances. Catherine Deneuve plays Tristana to the hilt, using the twin Western feminine archetypes, the Madonna and the Harlot respectively, to craft a fully realized character, a woman like the Madonna in tenderness and servitude even while a mistress, then finally combining them to create a character way past both stereotypes, embodying the darker Western myth of the vengeful woman. But Deneuve, and Bunuel, are not here to simply embody these common tropes – this film is about the cost of a society that relegates women to only four possible social roles, Madonna, Harlot, Shrew, and Servant. Tristana is given fully human dimensions, even as she in forced into one role after the other, running the gamut through them all, carrying the increasing weight, the cost of her oppression on her shoulders. And that cost is deep, practically etched in Tristana’s face later in the film, especially, in one of the best moments, as she opens her robe to the lustful gaze of a young man, and he sees something there, in a body by now mutilated, used, loved, and in an expression full of power and assured brilliance: he finds, for him, a terrible something there and can only back away.
Fernando Rey, playing Lope, gives a similarly inspired and powerful performance, an old man well aware of the incestuous and predatory elements of his relationship with Tristana, but who just can’t help himself, or believes he can’t and so allows himself to commit repeated atrocity on the girl-to-woman he professes to love. Even as an old man, you can’t doubt his virility, which is key to this performance because it is exactly that virility that allows him to do what he is doing – he is the embodiment of Spanish manliness, the kind of man who refuses to judge a duel because the contestants are only going to first blood instead of to the death. It’s exactly that virility that brings the rest of the community to his side in this matter, allowing this atrocity to go on for years right next to them, the only response of the Catholic priests and others being to tell Tristana to marry him.
Then there’s Bunuel, the director of some note I mentioned earlier. One of the elements I most enjoyed about Tristana was how reserved Bunuel was in the direction of this film, employing a camera that moves with exquisite, lyrical beauty, instead of filming in his trademark, fast cut surrealism. He opts to allow the surreality of reality to come to the fore as it is itself – the bizarre, constant hypocrisy of the men in the film, the casual way the poor are downtrodden regularly by those, like Lope, who claim to defend them always and make great shows of doing so. In a way, Tristana is a much more surreal film than, say, Un Chien Andalou, exploring the non-sequitur that is existence, particularly for a trapped woman like Tristana herself, who must accept her lack of power in order to gain any. It’s an astounding exploration of Spanish society in the 30s, when the movie is set, and in the 60s, when it was filmed, all the more remarkable because of how subtle and quiet it is and yet also because of how powerful it is, especially the final shots, delivered in backwards sequence, with impact like the tolling of the bell in Tristana’s dreams. Those dreams, one of the few overtly surrealistic moments in the film, teach us how to watch the rest, informing the complex psychology and social criticism going on here, the horror imbued into the very fabric of Western, masculine culture. As the bellringer explains early on, the society once built itself around the bells, a bell for marriage, a bell for dying, and a bell for death.