Love is a complicated thing, and whether you believe in soul mates or that it’s all a crap-shoot of the heart you’d be hard-pressed to deny that’s it’s an elusive, fragile and all together dangerous emotion. It’s especially complicated when the two people involved aren’t anywhere near the same page. And when you add socio-political commentary into the mix? Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this one.
It’s post-WWI Spain, and Tristana’s (Catherine Deneuve) mother has died. Before she passed the woman entrusted a “friend” named Don Lope (Fernando Rey) to take on the role of guardian to the teenage girl and protect her into womanhood. He takes Tristana on as his ward, but what starts in innocence quickly leads to more physical desires triggered by a casual glimpse at her breasts beneath a nightgown.
A see-saw relationships develops between the lusty old man and the sweetly optimistic teen, but as time passes emotions and loyalties shift in dramatic fashion until the couple they are and the couple they were bear little resemblance.
“In questions of love and women I believe the notion of sin doesn’t exist.”
Stories about old men and the young women they covet are as old as dirt, but director/co-writer Luis Buñuel has crafted his uncomfortable romance with a side of his usual commentary. He manages some digs at the Church, Spain’s troubled government and society’s puritanical nature, but the core of the story remains grounded in the tragic relationship between Tristana and Don Lope.
Both characters are made clear early on, but slowly, through machinations of both heart and script, they change. Tristana is idealistic about love and unwilling to sacrifice her freedom to find it. The thought of being with someone without the restraint of marriage appeals to her, and Don Lope only enforces that idea. But the line between guardian and lover blurs and grow even more complicated when she meets a charismatic street painter (Franco Nero).
Don Lope is part of the aristocratic class, but looks can be deceiving. He disavowed God long ago, believes in sexual freedom and is as anti-authoritarian as they come. He misdirects police after witnessing a thief run by because “the police stand for power, and men like me always defend the weak, whatever the circumstances.” And yet, his various philosophies are ignored when it comes to his own “belongings.”
The story reminds of Claude Sautet’s excellent César et Rosalie (which actually came out two years later) at first, but events here aren’t nearly as straight forward or emotionally affecting. The old man, the young man and the woman they both love remain the core, but Bunuel’s penchant for commentary intrudes just enough to add something extra as their lives shift and fates unfold.
Both leads give strong performances, and even though they don’t engender an emotional response from viewers for most of the film their characters remain powerfully heartfelt creations. Rey begins as a calculating predator of sorts, but finds the empathetic heart of Don Lope for all to see. Deneuve is especially impressive playing a woman who begins wide-eyed and warm at age nineteen but becomes someone brittle and broken, the life and spirit draining from her face before our eyes.
Tristana never pretends to be a playful romp, but the initially light tone grows considerably darker towards the end. Love takes no prisoners it seems, but sometimes those in love must. Don Lope says early on, “to keep a woman honest you must break her leg and keep her at home.” But he never could have predicted that what was once a humorous, throw away comment would lead to such a comforting yet haunting background noise in his life.
Tristana opens in limited theatrical re-release today