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Luis Bunuel's masterpiece Tristana (1970) took nearly two decades to get made. Though the director considered the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós one of that author's worst (he described it as "of the 'I love you, my little pigeon' genre, very kitsch"), he had enough interest in it to consider making a film of it in Mexico in the 1950s with Ernesto Alonso (the star of Buñuel's 1955 The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz and Silvia Pinal (Viridiana ). In 1962, Buñuel revived the project in Spain only to meet with inflexible opposition from Franco's censors. They were wary of him after the experience of Viridiana, which, intended to mark the director's happy return into the arms of his native country after years of exile, instead emerged as a work that the Franco government considered so subversive that it had to be banned. In 1969, thanks to the persistence of Epoca Films, the Spanish production company that was backing the project, Tristana was revived again, this time with co-production funding and two international stars (Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero). Though the censors were again suspicious and threatened to block the film, this time Buñuel managed to get around them.
Filming started in September, with Deneuve in the title role of a young orphan in the custody of the well-to-do but politically liberal and anti-clerical Don Lope (Fernando Rey), who seduces her and makes her his mistress, only for her to leave him for a younger painter (Nero). Though the French star, not Buñuel's choice, was imposed on him by the producers, he was happy with her. In the diary she kept of the shooting, Deneuve noted with pleasure that Buñuel has taken "total ownership of this film - no one except him can really understand everything that has to happen in it." Buñuel's years of experience had given him an absolute mastery. "The risks he takes are those of someone who's seen it all," Deneuve wrote. "It's different with a younger director - risks often come from a lack of awareness. [Buñuel] knows exactly what he's risking, and does it anyway."
Deneuve, who had worked with Buñuel before on Belle de Jour (1967), found herself left to her own devices. "I don't always feel as if I'm being directed," she wrote one day. On another day, she wrote, "Don Luis seems very reluctant to give me clear instructions. Every time he makes a suggestion, he quickly adds, 'But as you like, don't take any notice.'" On the other hand, "Don Luis doesn't treat his actors particularly gently; it's very frightening when he interrupts during a take." She also found the director impatient with technical problems. "But in the end, you know, it was actually rather a wonderful shoot," Deneuve told Pascal Bonitzer, adding, "Tristana is one of my favorite films. Personally, as an actress, I prefer Tristana to Belle de Jour."
Tristana is one of Buñuel's most personal films. He transposed the action of Galdós's novel from Madrid to Toledo, a city that had held an immense fascination for him in his younger days. "For him, Toledo was the center of many things," recalled Eduardo Ducay, one of the producers. Buñuel also moved the period of the story from the late 19th century to the years from 1929 to 1935 - a period when Buñuel himself was still living in Spain. He filled the film with his memories of his early life, claiming that for Tristana's habit of distinguishing between two seemingly identical things, he drew on his memory of his sister, who "would put two pieces of bread on the table and ask me, 'Luis, which one do you like best?' 'Neither,' I told her, 'they are both the same.' She would say, 'Then the right one is better.' It seems stupid, doesn't it? I find a certain mystery in this."
The director saw something of himself in both his main characters. "In one way or another, [Tristana] and Don Lope touch my heart," he said. The pair offer incisive contrasting portraits of rebels. Tristana, an innocent, is warped by life and becomes vengeful and perverse. Meanwhile, Don Lope, in middle age a hypocrite self-satisfied with his own nonconformism, mellows in his old age in a manner that it is hard not to see as wry self-commentary by the director: Buñuel, who earned his fame as a Surrealist bad boy with the scandalous Un chien andalou (1929) and L'age d'or (1930), would celebrate his 70th birthday shortly before the release of Tristana. According to Pierre Lary, Buñuel's assistant director, "Tristana was made as a kind of exorcism... He was getting old and, at the same time, he was back in the place where he'd spent his best years... All that created a sense of pain, of fear, fear of old age rather than death... Fernando Rey was both his double and what he didn't want to be." Though Rey had previously appeared in Viridiana, Tristana marked the beginning of the Spanish actor's most consistent collaboration with Buñuel, which included two more films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Matching the sleek surfaces of Buñuel's mise en scène, Rey's rarely perturbed urbanity makes an ideal foil for the surreal absurdities and disruptions the director constantly throws in his heroes' paths.
Producers: Robert Dorfmann, Joaquín Gurruchaga, Eduardo Ducay
Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenplay: Julio Alejandro, based on the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, adapted by Luis Buñuel
Cinematography: José F. Aguayo
Film Editing: Pedro del Rey
Art Direction: Enrique Alarcón
Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Tristana), Fernando Rey (Don Lope), Franco Nero (Horacio), Lola Gaos (Saturna), Jesús Fernández (Saturno), Antonio Casas (Don Cosme).
by Chris Fujiwara
John Baxter, Buñuel. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998.
José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, translated by Paul Lenti. New York: Marsilio, 1992.
Catherine Deneuve, Close Up and Personal, translated by Polly McLean. London: Orion, 2006.
Julie Jones, "A Dialog with Self: Luis Buñuel's Dramatization of Identity in Four Characters Played by Fernando Rey," Cineaste (Fall 2010), pp. 32-37.
Bill Krohn and Paul Duncan, editors, Luis Buñuel: The Complete Films. Cologne: Taschen, 2005.