Luis Buñuel’s relationship with his home country of Spain was a complicated one – it informed his work and was the root of his uniquely skewed outlook on the world, but he spent most of his life out of the country and made only three films there during his career. Born in the mountain town of Calanda in 1900, he moved with his family to the rural region of Aragon and its capital city Zaragoza when he was young. Attending college in Madrid, he became close friends with Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, moving to France after graduation and joining the Surrealist group with Dalí, ultimately creating one of his most famous works with him, the short film Un Chien Andalou. He made another film (the scandalous L’Age d’Or) with Dalí before their friendship dissolved, then returned to Spain during the turbulent years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Back in Spain, Buñuel made another short film, Las Hurdes, a semi-documentary about a poverty-stricken mountainous region of Spain near the Portuguese border. The film provoked an uproar with Spanish officials for its brutal depiction of extreme poverty and was banned in Spain from 1933 to 1936, and then again by Francisco Franco’s regime when he came to power after the Civil War. Buñuel left the country when Civil War broke out, departing for the U.S. and then Mexico, where he settled for the rest of his life.
After re-establishing himself as a filmmaker of note in Mexico, Buñuel was invited by Spain to make a film funded by the government, presumably looking to call Spain’s filmmaking son back to his homeland. But the film he made, Viridiana (based on a novel by the author Benito Pérez Galdós), contained scenes considered blasphemous and subversive – despite the script being approved by censors. Franco attempted to have the film destroyed and recalled from its entry at the Cannes film festival, but Buñuel had already left the country with his film. It was immediately banned in Spain, but won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and pushed Buñuel to the upper ranks of international directors, allowing him to make some of his seminal works throughout the 60s.
With these two films created in Spain behind him, it was with some trepidation that the Spanish government again allowed Buñuel to make a third film, Tristana. Could another film made with Franco still in power, be trusted in the hands of Buñuel, the man who said of his surrealist days “Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny - in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed.”? Apparently so!
Tristana, unlike Buñuel’s previous Spanish films, did not provoke outrage or scandal and was not banned in Spain (or elsewhere, to my knowledge) – but it could have been. Buñuel turned again to a Galdós novel as source material and found a work that’s very similar in tone to Viridiana – a young woman is taken in by an older gentleman after her parents’ passing and he takes more than a paternal interest in her. The gentleman, Don Lope, is again played by Fernando Rey (in his second of four collaborations with Buñuel), and the young woman Tristana is played by Catherine Deneuve, who Buñuel had worked with to great effect in Belle de Jour. Their relationship in the film is complex and always shifting – Tristana starts the film naïve and meek, a religious woman still mourning the loss of her family, while Don Lope is an atheistic, anti-capitalistic, mostly leftist gentleman who nevertheless retains some archaic notions of honor (very similar to Buñuel himself, in fact). Though Tristana is repulsed by his advances she still remains under his care and as the film continues she begins to assert her independence and a shift begins. Tristana slowly adopts the hardened exterior of her guardian while his strong postures fade away and he becomes the helpless ward. Ironically, it’s Don Lope’s regular talk of the assertion of freedom and individual will that powers Tristana’s bids for autonomy that leave him an emotional wreck.
While the film doesn’t have the outré shock value of Buñuel’s earlier work, it’s a deeply weird and complex film underneath, simultaneously condemning and offering sympathy for Don Lope in his doomed desires for young Tristana (he is referred to throughout the film by various characters as old and hence unattractive), and similarly finding outrage in how Tristana is treated when she’s young, only have her behave monstrously later in life. It wouldn’t be too difficult for Spanish censors who had been upset by Viridiana’s suggestive relationship with her cousin in the earlier film to find in this film a full-bore attack on traditional and family values, frequently showing Don Lope’s moralism as out of touch and his relationship with Tristana considerably more unchaste than the one depicted in Viridiana. And Tristana herself even voices Don Lope’s ideals of remaining unmarried, a free agent in the world of romance able to choose who she wishes to be with and when.
In Buñuel’s universe, boundaries placed on desire are always under attack, and Tristana’s undermining of family values and portrait of marriage as a corrupt institution should, in theory, have been upsetting to Spanish censors. But for some reason, perhaps because rising stars Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero were cast to help the film toward international success and nobody involved on the Spanish side of the production wanted to seem to be as out of touch as Don Lope, the film passed without friction. It’s as mysterious, challenging, sardonic, and strangely beautiful as any film in Buñuel’s catalog.
- Patrick Brown