Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tristana [dir. Luis Buñuel]


While it may be open to reading of all manner of subtext, what is really cool about Tristana is that it works perfectly well as a straightforward character drama, and in its exploration of sexual desire and perversity (and some other aspects, more on that later), it makes a lovely companion piece to that other collaboration between Buñuel and actor Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour.
Which is not to say that the film is devoid of subtleties or ambiguities, no. In the initial part, when a youthful wide-eyed Tristana (Deneuve) is first adopted by the aging chevalier Don Lope (Ray Fernando) only to be then cornered by that man into a carnal relationship, she does not immediately react with horror. It is not made explicit as to whether it is naiveté that clouds her awareness of the perversity of her situation, or an underlying sexual curiosity – her behavior with the local teenage boys is curious – mixed with a cynical acceptance of her situation as an orphaned child. Lope himself is a layered character, alternatively paternal and lustful. He is socially respected, an impoverished noble with claims to old-world charity and chivalry, although some of that is later dispelled. He pampers Tristana but jealously keeps her under virtual house arrest, the only outings approved being to the church (The Don is an atheist, but indulges Tristana her “superstitions”). It is of course just a matter of time before the situation becomes unbearable for the girl, who turns resentful and insolent towards her guardian. On one of her unauthorized outings accompanied by Lope's servant Saturna (Lola Gaos) – who in her pragmatic simplicity is one of the few pillars of emotional and moral strength in the film – Tristana meets a painter Horacio (Franco Nero, yes, he of Django fame), who she is immediately infatuated with (romance or plain lust after having only been with an aged lover?). In a scene where Lope's claims to honor at all cost are called into doubt, he is quickly brushed off by Horacio, and the couple go off to make their own life. Interesting enough, they do not marry because the otherwise Christian Tristana believes in Don Lope's claims of unfettered love (or perhaps just finds it more convenient than being hitched to one person).
That's however not the end since after an abruptly mentioned two years, Tristana is back with Don Lope at her own insistence, now in dire illness on account of a tumor in one of her legs. The Don, who has been restored to good financial straits thanks to an inheritance, is happy to once more play the benevolent patriarch, confident that Tristana will now (figuratively) never leave the house. But while his stance has become more sincerely patriarchal, Tristana now only has corruption and cynicism in her heart, and vengeful feelings towards her guardian, and in more ways than one she becomes responsible for his death.
So yes, a straightforward character drama, but what brilliantly fleshed out characters. It is no mean feat that the script (Buñuel and Julio Alejandro based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós) can shift your sympathies from one character to the other without ever seeming contrived, and without requiring any kind of pretentious “reading between the lines” from the audience. There are no “set-piece” scenes, but the entire narrative has a lucid flow. Fernando Rey and Catherine Deneuve give themselves whole-heartedly to Buñuel's vision, casting aside any personal ego with brutally honest performances. José Aguayo's cinematography is magnificent; in its earthiness, it reflects the passionate (sexual and emotional) thrust of the story and is an interesting contrast to the colder visual style of Belle de Jour (appropriate to that film's dealing with sexual frigidity).

A few words on the Cohen Media Group blu-ray of the film:
In terms of video quality the high-definition master used to produce this blu-ray, based on a 2012 restoration of the film, is a revelation. The previous BFI release (which I believe was also the source for the Enlighten DVD in India) is anemic, muddy and video-like in comparison. This is not just the difference between HD and SD (Cohen have also released it on DVD, which I am sure will be a big improvement from the BFI release), it is the result of a fresh scan from the original negative (and occasional use of other sources, which are noticeable). The colors are rich and true, and filmic texture is apparent. For audio, they have provided Spanish and English surround mixes. While it would have been nice to have the French mix in addition to or in lieu of English (since Catherine Deneuve is very obviously delivering her lines in French), the bulk of the film is in Spanish (although most of the cast appears to have been dubbed in post, a widely followed practice of the time) and the audio is quite satisfactory. I have not yet accessed the extras, but you mainly have a video essay and a commentary track with Catherine Deneuve and a film critic. There's a nice booklet that also includes excerpts from Deneuve's diary during the making of the film. This a fantastic Criterion/Eureka grade package and highly recommended. Also, I think it is region-free, in case that's an issue.

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