Luis Buñuel, the Spanish director who has had to live and work most of his life in exile in France and Mexico, has been making movies since 1928 (Un Chien Andalou), but it wasn't until 1961 and the international critical success of Viridiana that he could pick his properties with any degree of independence. There has followed a kind of Buñuelian age d'or, nine years of extraordinarily rich moviemaking of the sort that most fine, idiosyncratic directors—probably unfortunately—pass through before they're fifty.
Since Viridiana, Buñuel, now seventy, has made The Exterminating Angel, Diary of a Chambermaid, Simon of the Desert, and, starting in 1967, a series of "farewell," films that include Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, and his latest, Tristana, which is nothing less than the quintessential Buñuel film of all time.
This is not quite the same thing as saying that Tristana, which closed the New York Film Festival last night and opens today at the Lincoln Art Theater, is Buñuel's best. Unlike Tristana, the virginal school girl whose transformation into grand demon Buñuel traces in his new film, I would hesitate to choose the better of two grapes, two bread crumbs, or two snowflakes, to say nothing of two Buñuels.
Viridiana is his undoubted masterpiece, but Tristana is more pure and more consistent, less ambiguous and more complex. It has no "set pieces" to equal Viridiana's tumultuous Last Supper, but the entire film moves so swiftly, with such uncompromising concern for the matters at hand, that anything on the order of a "set piece" would have destroyed its practically perfect symmetry.
The film is an adaptation by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro of a novel by Benito Pérez Gald—s, the late nineteenth-century Spanish writer who also wrote the novel on which Buñuel and Alejandro based the screenplay for Nazarin. The time has been updated from 1892 to the early 1920's, and the setting is Toledo, the medieval city whose narrow streets and ancient courtyards (on which a certain amount of restoration is going on, but lethargically) correspond to the Buñuelian view of the social and political scene.
Don Lope (Fernando Rey) is an aging, aristocratic, but financially impoverished free thinker, an enemy of all arbitrary authority (except his own) who believes in a gentleman's honor, in those commandments that do not have to do with sex, and in the nobility of only the work that is done "with pleasure." When her mother, an old flame of Don Lope, dies, Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) comes to live with him.
Tristana is a dutiful girl who mopes around quite a lot and Don Lope, who is so astute in other ways, assumes that she is in mourning for her mother. Don Lope has compassion, but he is a man. He can't keep his hands off her and calling her "my adored child" with such feeling that it doesn't seem at all unlikely that he may well be her father. With very little fuss, Tristana becomes his mistress, and although she obviously doesn't love him, it is apparent that sex is immensely important to her.
Tristana is not the vacuum she has seemed to be. She puts into practice the freedom Don Lope preaches so loftily. "Smell the sickly odor of marital bliss," Don Lope sneers when they pass a pair of lovers in the street. When the opportunity comes, Tristana runs off with a young artist (Franco Nero), only to return some years later with a malignant tumor on her leg.
Don Lope, now rich with an inheritance, takes her in, nurses her back to health after her leg is amputated with such cheery thoughts as "some men would find you more attractive than ever now." Tristana does become more beautiful, as well as so imperiously perverse that, years later, after they have made "a sinful relationship holy" by marriage, and when he is an old, pathetic man, she can let him die without a gesture of pity.
In what amounts almost to a courtly gesture on his part, as the film's director, Buñuel underscores the terrible inevitability of the events at the very end with a series of quick replays of key moments from the film, unreeling the story backward in a kind of narrative zoom to our first meeting with Tristana, the first scene in the film in which the first words "spoken" are the sign language of deaf mutes.
On this simple tale, Buñuel has made a marvelously complex, funny, and vigorously moral movie that also is, to me, his most perfectly cast film. Fernando Rey (Don Jaime of Viridiana) is splendid—vain, wise, proud, foolish. Catherine Deneuve is beautiful, of course, but never before has her beauty seemed more precise and enigmatic, so that while, at the beginning, there is just the slightest hint of the erotic woman inside the school girl, there is, at the end, an awareness of the saint that once lived within the majestically deformed woman.
Like all of Buñuel's films, Tristana is a vision of a very special, hermetically sealed world, and although it is fun to recognize familiar items of Buñueliana inside that world (a preoccupation with feet; earnest, misguided clerics; the kind of pragmatism that has Don Lope shout "Long live the living" after a funeral); the film is one that should fascinate even those coming into Buñuel's world for the first time.
The physical production, with color photography by José Aguayo, is uncommonly handsome, and its story is the work of an old master who has such command that he can tell a tale straightforward, without the sort of superficial subtleties and superfluous nuances that, in the work of lesser talents, take the place of primal substance.
Vincent Canby at September 21, 1970 in The New York Times