Unlike many of Luis Buñuel’s films, Tristana is shockingly mild in its surrealism, which is what perhaps makes the film far more mysterious as you watch it. It is, in fact, quite a simple story at first glance. A woman dies leaving her daughter in the care of a gentleman, Don Lope, who in turn falls in love with said daughter, and then daughter learns to loathe him and finds comfort in the arms of an artist. Of course, there’s far more plot unfolding as the film rolls late into the second half, but the simplicity and realism of the film at surface level make this a curious venture for a master of audacious surrealism and biting criticizer of the upper classes.
Though certainly, critiquing the upper classes Buñuel doesn’t let go of, even if the bite seems less pronounced. After all, Don Lope is a gentleman believing in honor and justice, holds high the value of helping the poor and the weak, but in fact lives comfortably, has a servant, and is doing pretty well for himself all said and done, considering he has the liberty of refusing to work to live, and perhaps in fact doesn’t actually have to refuse, being privileged with inheritance or some other resources.
However much he believes in his ideals, though, he is also a libertine. His concern for the poor and weak does not also seem to include anyone that might be oppressed under patriarchy and sexism. This is, of course, seen in his love of Tristana who has come to live with him, and who from the get-go he asks that she love him like a father, which, as the plot progresses, grossly gets twisted into persuading her to love him like a husband. At one point, he even stresses that he wants to be both father and husband to her, and that she must obey him on both counts, concerned for her falling in with the wrong crowds and yet also jealous for the potential it has for some other challenger to his love. He is extremely jealous of her gallivanting about the town, and even threatens killing her if he discovers she has another lover. But, of course, he does still give her freedom and, being the libertine he is, sees marriage only as a cage, so that there is no reason for her to excuse herself for whatever she does.
Tristana comes to Don Lope as an innocent girl, though how childlike innocent she was before his falling in love with her is questionable. It seems unsettling, early on in the film, the almost seamless dream sequence she has (directly cutting from a scene in reality) soon after moving in with Don Lope. She’s ascending the stairwell of a bell tower with two deaf children we have met earlier at a special school in the town. They keep trying to peek under her dress but she slaps them off and yet laughs a little, going up the stairs with them. At the top, she walks away from them and we see a look of horror on her face. When the camera cuts, there is Don Lope’s severed head being used as the clapper, banging off the bell. She awakes and it is soon after that she becomes his lover. Something about the dream, maybe, pushes her to him, enough that he becomes something for her. It is seeing the heavy pang of death for him that perhaps, in her seeming innocence and care of others, allows him to become effectively her husband. Of course, the grimness of the dream undermines her innocent qualities, and the death of her recent mother has also made her grow older, so that her innocence is left to suffer in grim realities, and then is completely left empty when Don Lope takes her as lover.
Tristana eventually rebels against Don Lope and falls in love with a painter, Horacio. Horacio takes her away from that town and for a time she gains her freedom from Don Lope. She returns two years later, however, when she discovers that she has cancer in her leg. Horacio agrees to returning her to her “guardian,” and Don Lope proceeds to take care of her, even after her leg must get amputated.
Late in the film, the roles have dramatically changed. Don Lope, aging steeply, wants to marry her, which they do. He takes care of her in such a way that is equal to that of the weak and poor, her condition being extremely fragile. In his late age dining with the priests, who he once spurned and hated, is now not out of the question. Tristana, on the other hand, has left innocence so far behind that she is nearly brutal: curt with others; mean-spirited, hating Don Lope at his best and most loving; disturbingly exposing herself to a familiar deaf character who departs in fear; and further, at nearly the end of the film, when Don Lope is dying, agrees to call the doctor for him but in actuality never does.
Buñuel shows characters traversing toward different ends and ways of being as their lives move forward. But it is left up to the viewer to decide how it is that either of these characters has come to the ways they are by the end of the film.
Don Lope is guided by passion, even stresses preserving passion, not being caged in, yet ironically follows certain conventions and standards of the gentleman, agreeing that no one should sleep with their friend’s wives or with those who are purely innocent (the second, he breaks with Tristana). For him, one can pick what one deems just, follow certain ideals and not others. He does what he wants and when he wants and does not want Tristana to do the same. He is living in double standards, and deems himself a free-spirit, able to go about like the wind. His conception of freedom is sketchy at best. How much freedom do you really have if it restricts the lives of others? Is that freedom? Is that concern and love? Indeed also, his very passion has chained him in, so that he does not seem to be able to control the emotions he has for Tristana, or ultimately control her in any way despite trying to keep her at home. One might see him becoming a more gentle man by the end of his life only because his object of affection has no power anymore, her leg lost and thus her mobility lost. Even earlier on in the film, Don Lope seems to prophesy this when he quotes a saying that says that in order to keep an honest woman at home her leg must be broken (I paraphrase poorly).
Tristana, however, dichotomizes life, seeing that when there are choices presented she chooses one over the other. There is, for her, an action of seeing only so many fates ahead of her, and it is choosing the one over the other that gives her a certain sense of will and freedom. Several times this plays out. She sees two beautiful architectural pillars in town and asks which one Don Lope likes better. She likes one over the other. She is eating at a table and takes two beans from her bowl and places them in front of her, eating one and not the other. Walking along with someone else she points between two pathways going up hill and asks which one is the better pathway, then chooses. Even to her artist lover, upon finding out that the “old man” is her lover, she forces him to see her as one way or another—as a free woman or an unhappy married one—and then tells him he must decide how to love her.
A sense of fate is weighted in Tristana, and plagues her thinking. How true is her freedom if you only ever see there are certain choices to make? Her sense of freedom is limited, hemmed-in like the very walls of the town that her and Don Lope walk through. Buñuel shows several shots of them walking long and tight alleyways, kept in on all sides with only a few directions to go. She can choose between choices, finds free will in picking one thing or another, and this alone seems enough for her.
There are two perspectives of choice here in how one lives, but it seems that fate gets the better of them, and that neither in the end really matters. The libertine cannot be a libertine anymore as he ages, his ideas of freedom being taken away by his very passion and his oncoming death. Age alone will change you, and the free-spirit becomes still air. And Tristana, seeing her freedom only by choosing one of several pathways provided, is quickly disillusioned when she gets a tumor, something of which she has had no choice in the matter, no pathway to choose, and must have her leg amputated.
Other elements seem to help reinforce the sense of fatalism the film creates. One might notice that the film cuts to different scenes seamlessly and jumps in time without any demarcation that several years have passed. It provides a disorienting sense for the viewer and lowers the value of time itself. You start not to keep track or care about when things are happening. The film forces you to give in to the mindset of the characters, as if, like the characters, it is trying to make you fight back the sense of time, make you completely deny that it exists and that you’re getting older. You are forced like them to see themselves the same throughout their lives, despite their changes, as if they feel they have never gotten older, and then suddenly it creeps up on them (and you) that they are older and they have changed.
The bizarre ending dream sequence evokes a sense of fatalism as well. After Don Lope dies, the viewer sees the face of Tristana, and then it cuts to a montage of scenes, going back in time, of Don Lope’s head as the clapper of the bell, and the times Tristana has kissed or loved or denied her suitors. It happens quickly and seems almost trite, bearing resemblance to that cliché of “your life passing before your eyes.” But its cheapness is what makes it so hauntingly surreal. And the shortness is what makes it so dreadfully fatalistic. It’s as if she processes that where she has ended up in her life—the contours that have led her to being without a leg, bitter in all things, loathing of Don Lope who’s just died—has always hinged upon how she has treated falling in love. There are no other scenes in her flashback. Every one of them (outside of Don Lope’s severed dream head) has to do specifically with passion, desire, or some element of romantic love. Wonder is invoked: what was it all about for her, the hinging points of her life being that of romantic drama and interest? What happened to all those other wishes and fulfillments that, occasionally throughout the film, she was committed to? What has happened to her identity, and how is it that all of her life has been absorbed into amorous affairs? What happens to her freedom if the only major options provided in her life seemed to be between lovers? Or is she her own self-fulfilling prophecy, only thinking there were options being provided when there was so much more?
Tristana isn’t Buñuel’s last film, but you would be hard-pressed not to see or at least feel the personal inflections and the heartfelt study of age and Time, considering it was filmed and released when he was about 70. It is an overwhelmingly bleak experience and yet strangely mild and quiet in form, despite coming to its end in an haunting and mysterious summation. It is a solid endeavor that, taken by the reins of a surrealist master late in his career, skillfully meanders the complexities of how it is that people transform as they age and the many contradictions that erupt throughout these transformations. It is a depiction of the Modern Self being pulled and torn and tossed, not merely by outer forces that have constructed it, but by that more raw and timeless instinct, that inner force tugging deep within, that animal sense of knowing you are doomed to die.
Director: Luis Buñuel
Release Year: 1970
Runtime: 100 minutes