Director Luis Buñuel's first four films were made in three different countries. By the time he reached the peak of his international renown in the mid 1960s, he could rightly be considered the most cosmopolitan of art-house filmmakers. In fact, few directors embody the slightly indeterminate "world cinema" tag more than Buñuel. It's ironic, then, that this iconoclast of Spanish cinema produced only three films in his native country. All three of these disparate projects, however, would prove important. The first, Land Without Bread, evidenced Buñuel's initial move away from surrealism toward a more realist-based approach; the second, the landmark Viridiana, brought the director once and for all to the forefront of the international cinema circuit, a position he would only relinquish upon his death in 1983. But Buñuel made one last momentous return to Spain in 1970 with Tristana, a multi-national production starring a French ingénue and a veteran of Spanish theater and television.
As in much of Buñuel's preceding work, the film's ingredients don't immediately appear compatible. Yet by this point in his career he was a master of balancing divergent elements. And indeed Tristana would prove to be one of Buñuel's most visually uniform, thematically and stylistically streamlined efforts to date. But if his aesthetic and authorial control over the production translated rather seamlessly, it was in stark contrast to his lead characters, a pair of contradictory, at-once sympathetic and deplorable would-be lovers as tragically dependent on one another as they are helplessly constrained by their vain attempts at emotional and physical independence. In the title role, Catherine Deneuve undergoes a transformation, both physically and psychologically, of near-unparalleled complexity. Fernando Rey, meanwhile, as the totalitarian Don Lope, evolves in less demonstrative fashion, yet is doubly hypocritical, a weak soul with a brutish façade who preys on a young girl's naïveté with grave consequence.
As the film opens, we're met with a calming air of grace as Tristana dutifully attends to the needs of a group of disabled school kids, her life of even greater servitude hinted at straight away before we eventually learn of her debt to Don Lope, who, as her guardian, has brought this wide-eyed young lady into his life of bourgeois comfort. What transpires is a meticulous game of psycho-sexual cat and mouse across the cramped streets of Toledo and among the far more constricting confines of Don Lope's house. Even from early on Tristana envisions the man's death; the recurring image of his severed head swung pendulum-like from a church bell is a genuinely unsettling manifestation of her inner turmoil. And yet Don Lope seems to have her best interests in mind as he offers advice and provides for her every need. What happens behind closed doors is another matter, however, and it's through Buñuel's delicate handling of his subject that not only does Don Lope remain tolerable, but even identifiable at times.
Don Lope's penance is certainly paid by film's end, though by that point the roles have been almost imperceptibly reversed, leaving Tristana not only as an antagonist, but something of a vigilante as well. As complacency sets in following her escape from Don Lope's possession (her secret, stale lover, played by Franco Nero, is as noticeably offensive to her sensibilities as her devious caretaker once was), a tumor materializes to push her toward rock bottom, seemingly taking her leg as sacrifice for the vengeance she hopes to enact on her former keeper. But her return feels as inevitable as Don Lope's demise, the intertwining of their fates ordained even as their motives blur and begin to take the narrative far from its intimate origins. That Buñuel is able to accomplish this through only a handful of stylistic gestures speaks to both his foresight and execution, a game of interpersonal chess taken to tragic ends without so much as leaving a small-town setting or introducing many peripheral characters.
If Buñuel indeed proscribed to Pascal's notion of extremities eventually coinciding, as Budd Wilkins suggested in his recent review of That Obscure Object of Desire, then Tristana may be the most of devastating example of the theory. Both Tristana and Don Lope are strong characters, though rarely at the same time. In fact, they seem to thrive on the other's weaknesses, keeping each other alive and motivated until one realizes the innate potential of their inner passion and usurps the willpower of the other. It's not a particularly hopeful message, but it's a fundamental truth we as viewers should hope to confront and conquer early on in our personal maturation, and hopefully not at the expense of another person. Thus, if Buñuel's widespread output doesn't attest to art's continued ability to transcend borders, then these concepts certainly do.
Cohen Media Group's Tristana Blu-ray marks not only the debut of the film in high definition, but on Region 1 digital video. The import DVDs were themselves nothing special, but this 1080p upgrade (sourced from the same transfer that provided Criterion with their laserdisc back in the 1990s) tightens the picture considerably, accentuating the earthy color palette, balancing contrast while heightening black levels. There's even a thin layer of grain and some noticeable depth present, all preserved in the original 1.60:1 aspect ratio. Audio, meanwhile, is presented in a more than adequate lossless DTS track. There's very little in the way of demonstrative sound in Tristana, but there are subtle effects, particularly during the dream sequences, which the track handles well enough. Both the original Spanish and English dubs are presented, with voices audible and upfront and with no undue noise to note. The limitations of the source may ultimately curb the A/V potential of this release, but compared to what, if anything, you may have previously seen on home video, this is a marked improvement.
Extras are slim but essential. The highlight is a feature-length audio commentary by Catherine Deneuve and critic Kent Jones. It plays more like a Q&A session with Deneuve than an in-depth analysis of the film, but it offers plenty of anecdotal entertainment with a bit of contextual information emerging as a natural by-product of the conversation. On the more critical end of the spectrum is a 30-minute interview/visual essay on the film with Luis Buñuel scholar Peter William Evans. He deconstructs themes, visual cues, and the film's relation to the director's prior work, making a pretty strong case for the film as one of Buñuel's most significant achievements. In addition to the requisite trailers, there's also a brief alternate ending included, which was originally used in the European version of the film; it's a little less elliptical, but no less bleak than the international ending. Finally, there's an insightful booklet appended to the package, featuring a new essay by critic Richard Porton, an excerpt from Raymond Durgnat's Luis Buñuel, and entries from Deneuve's diary kept during production. All in all, it's a worthy helping of material for a film not often considered in the same thorough manner as Buñuel's more popular works.
Luis Buñuel made one last momentous return to Spain in 1970 with Tristana, a multi-national production starring a French ingénue and a veteran of Spanish theater and television that would prove to be one of his most scathing, personal works. [Slant]