“Tristana” is relatively mellow Luis Bunuel, which means that there’s only one shot of a severed head swinging as the clapper to a church bell. And it’s pretty clearly identified as a dream sequence.
Otherwise, it’s hard to recognize the 1970 film, on the surface, as the work of the surrealist Spanish director known for “Le Chien Andalou,” or even the button-pushing sexual politics of “Belle du Jour.” In fact, I had to stick with “Tristana” (now out in a lovely new Blu-ray edition from the Cohen Media Group) about halfway through before I started feeling Bunuel’s presence.
Otherwise, the classical “Tristana” plays like a 19th-century novel, with Catherine Deneuve (returning despite her misgivings over how Bunuel treated her in “Belle du Jour,” according to the commentary track), playing the title character. When her mother dies, Tristana is taken in by a local benefactor, Don Lope (Fernando Rey), who barely hides his lecherous intentions behind a veneer of arrogant propriety. Tristana chafes under his rule, even has a dalliance with a local artist (Franco Nero), but eventually succumbs to his advances.
What makes this different than every other story of a wronged ingenue is what happens after. Don Lope grows older, softer, lonelier, and becomes less controlling and more kindly towards Tristana. But she, older and more cynical, reacts to his newfound tenderness with seething rage. How dare he now become a human being? The upper hand has shifted, as “Tristana” moves towards its inevitable unhappy climax.
I liked “Tristana” quite a bit less than “Belle du Jour’ — I get that Bunuel’s game is to lull us into thinking the relationship is going one way, then suddenly changing course. But it’s a little dry until that change in direction, when Deneuve is finally able to offer a little more depth to her character. Rey is a delight all throughout, however, with Bunuel making merciless fun of a self-proclaimed “man of the people” who lets a thief get away because he’s a member of the proletariat, but is too pampered to actually work himself.
In addition to the commentary track with Deneuve and critic Kent Jones, the Blu-ray includes an alternate ending, a 30-minute featurette, and a 20-page booklet including Deneuve’s personal diary during the making of the film.