Advice for Escaping Film's Winter Doldrums

First released in 1970, Tristana is one of the masterpieces of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's astonishing late-life creative spree after his return to Europe from exile in Mexico. Newly out on Blu-ray from Cohen Media in a handsome-looking restoration, the movie is such a bracing antidote to the slop playing in theaters that I almost broke down in grateful whimpers when the UPS guy handed it over. A week when a botch like Oz The Great And Powerful is No. 1 at the box office—and Identity Thief, which I'd hoped might be just a grotesque memory by now, is still hanging in there at No. 3—can make the likes of me feel seriously glum about how we've wasted our lives by tossing critical spitballs at Himalayas made of cheese.

Along with Belle du Jour, Tristana is also one of only two movies Bunuel made with Catherine Deneuve, who's at once the unlikeliest actress ever to star in his films and uncannily perfect for them. She's Tristana, a demure 1930s waif taken after her mother's death into the home of a down-at-heels Toledo grandee, Don Lope Garrido (the invaluable Fernando Rey). He keeps her a virtual prisoner to protect her chastity, but inevitably ends up seducing her himself—becoming, as he says, at once her father and her husband, depending on which role suits him. Increasingly disgusted by her compromised situation, Tristana ends up compounding it by hooking up on the side with Horacio (Franco Nero, the onetime Lancelot in 1967's Camelot), a young painter she's met on one of her sneak trips into town with Don Lope's housekeeper, Saturna (Lola Gaos).

Yep, just your standard May-June-December love triangle. But Bunuel, who didn't think much of the Galdos novel the movie derives from—his own early literary hero was de Sade—is the director least likely to try stirring up trite emotions. Tristana's greatness is all in the caustic, dispassionate acuteness of his observation of each stage of Don Lope and Tristana's respective transformations—his from self-satisfied boulevardier to undignified, helpless old man, hers from decorous victimhood to wily perversity once she catches on she's in charge—and of the social structure they're both part of, in which religion, wealth, and gentility all jockey for pride of place in maintaining order.

Horacio interests the director—and us—a lot less. That's only partly because Franco Nero couldn't act his way out of a mildly mildewed Gucci totebag. It's very typical of Bunuel the anti-romantic that he couldn't care less that Horacio is an artist; if anything, the filmmaker has more affinity with Don Lope, and yet Bunuel doesn't sentimentalize him either. The real challenge to Don Lope and Tristana's not-quite-marital not-quite-happiness is Jesus Fernandez as Saturna the housekeeper's deaf-mute son, who can't see any point to life in Spain in the 1930s other than constant masturbation. To call him a great metaphor is to misrepresent how matter-of-factly he's depicted.

The scene in which a by then crippled, imperious Tristana exposes her breasts to him—though not to us, because Bunuel knew better and/or it was in Deneuve's contract—is one of the supreme depictions of class relations in movie history. That's because you can't say for sure whether she's being cruel or it's the most generous act of her life. Her idea of cruelty may well be his idea of generosity, and vice-versa.

Unlike some of Bunuel's other late movies— I'm thinking most of The Milky Way, which isn't much good, and The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, which is—Tristana isn't overtly absurdist. Any recognition that this crap is insane comes to us without authorial semaphoring. Yet that's just why it may be the ultimate distillation of Bunuel's acerbic POV. He's taking his own attitudes for granted, not being combative about them.

The paradox of Bunuel, who began as a capital-S Surrealist when it was a disturbing new movement, not just a catchall phrase, is that he's so lucid. His calm sense of irrationality as the norm, not the exception, ends up turning his best movies into the most reasonable attacks on pure reason anybody ever put on film. If that makes you curious, rent Tristana and thank me.

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