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A Complex Vision
on February 1, 2004
Without really consciously planning a "Catherine Deneuve Festival," I wound up watching this oft-cited classic in the same week as I viewed 1984's THE HUNGER, which is perhaps as notorious a film, but not generally considered to be in the same league as this 1970 Bunuel masterpiece. Aside from having Deneuve in a lead role, the two films have a few other things in common. Both have an international cast and feature Deneuve performing in a language not her own (the Spanish in TRISTANA being, in keeping with the conventions of European cinema, being obviously dubbed). But in terms of weightiness, they could scarcely be more different.
Tony Scott's THE HUNGER is all style, with the occasional hint of substance thrown in almost as an afterthought. It plays with weighty themes (life and death, the weightiest of 'em all--and sexuality, a close second) but it's really only play. If it makes a statement on any of its themes, it's almost inadvertant. Scott's background as a director of television commercials is readily evident.
Bunuel, who has been described as among the least "visual" of the great directors, is all about making a statement. I wouldn't want to have to resort to my old high school English teachers' ploy of isolating one significant "message" in so rich a work. Bunuel explores his traditional themes of power, class, gender and religion but does not offer easily digestible "messages" on any of these. In the character of Don Lope, he shows how one can have contradictory sentiments on any of these matters. The don is an aristocrat living in genteel poverty. He hates the church, is suspicious of the state and ostensibly sympathizes with the weak and powerless. In the case of his ward, Tristana, however, he is himself controlling and domineering--to the point of abusing her emotionally and sexually.
Tristana does absorb some of the don's lessons. She becomes suspicious of the institution of marriage, for example. She seeks the personal freedom that Don Lope has always maintained was the ideal (at least for himself) and ultimately takes on a lover of her own choice but refuses his offer of marriage. Eventually, when illness forces her to return to the don, she does agree to marry him but--we soon learn--only as a means to turn tables on her aging and increasingly feeble "guardian." In the final scenes, she has completely gained the upper hand over the now frail aristocrat. The innocent of the film's opening scenes has been tranformed into an icy, vengeful harpy by its end.
Don Lope's progressive visions were illusions, if not outright lies. Any attempt to fashion his pupil into something of his own creation goes horribly awry, a turn of events that he should have foreseen had he truly been visionary. In truth, he was a merely a decadent aristocrat with a few idealistic affectations. Tristana's victory is that she sees that and is able to use his weaknesses to her own end. Her loss is that, in order to do so, she has become a monster herself.