"It's good to have dreams, even if they're frightening... The dead don't dream."
Luis Buñuel's Tristana has got to be one of the most personal films Buñuel made in his brilliant career. Known for his dabbles in surrealism, the great Spanish director made several movies that floated on the surface level in dealings with the upper-classes, religion and even sadomasochism. This Academy Award nominated effort finds ways to work in all of those themes, but it stays away from the overly-surreal and the melodramatic. Because honestly, if any director other than someone as world-loathing as Buñuel had tried to make this movie, there is a good chance that the whole thing would have been laughable.
The personal touches in Tristana could be compared to the meticulous works of a surgeon while operating on someone famous or important. The surgeon, in this situation would want to do everything he or she could to make sure that the operation goes perfectly. If the surgery is not perfect, a career could end. Hell, a life could end. And what is more life-like than the career of someone as passionately connected to his work like Louis Buñuel?
Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman in Spain who has recently been orphaned. At 19 years old she is taken in by a middle-aged intellectual atheist by the name of Don Lope (Fernando Rey) for whom her mother worked as a servant. Lope is a well respected nobleman despite his atheism and his socialistic political views. His obvious weakness is women, and Tristana does not long remain the exception to the rule. Lope takes Tristana as his lover all the while reminding her that he is also her only father-figure. The relationship plays out in a way that is just as creepy and gross as it sounds. Tristana is disgusted by Lope's sexual advances and frequently has dreams where she sees Lope's disembodied head as the clapper for the church's enormous bell.
After being the victim of Lope's strange sexual desires for long enough, Tristana meets an artist closer to her age named Horacio. Lope's jealously explodes, but the young couple run off and get married anyway. Two years later Tristana falls ill and has to be returned to Lope. Tristana's behavior from here is directly pulled from her desire to take control away from the disgusting man who heavy-handedly took her virginity. The lonely, drunk and elderly Lope has lost his advantages in this ever-so-gag-worthy father/lover relationship. The rest of the movie plays out like a sexually-fused hyper-drama.
Buñuel's directorial style can be seen all over the closing moments of Tristana. The dream sequences, elongated conversations, voice-overs and flashbacks have the familiar feel of earlier Buñuel works, but you can also sense the momentum from this film that carried on through other masterpieces from the director like 1972's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. As a lifelone atheist, Buñuel used religious imagery in a controversial way throughout his entire career. The clergymen in the film are presented as sympathetic, but opportunistic people. Nobody in Tristana is a person worth cheering for, but isn't that real life? Or is it simply surreal? I have a feeling that Buñuel would tell you to figure that part out for yourself.