Leg Work

Melissa Anderson on Luis Buñuel’s Tristana at BAMcinématek

Luis Buñuel, Tristana, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve).

Have to toss underwear on to my artificial leg lying on the bed, and it’s a real challenge making the lace fall exactly on the shoed foot. —Catherine Deneuve, The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve

THE JOURNAL ENTRY ABOVE, dated October 4, 1969, was written during the second week of shooting Tristana (1970), Catherine Deneuve’s second—and final—collaboration with Luis Buñuel after the enormous success of Belle de Jour (1967). Abounding in bizarre detail, the jotting succinctly captures Tristana’s impeccable balance of precision and perversion.

As in Belle de Jour—in which Deneuve’s character, Séverine, a YSL-clad haute bourgeoise, finds erotic liberation through byzantine psychosexual fantasies and part-time work at a boutique bordello, where she is christened with the nom de pute of the title—Tristana hinges on the defilement of its eponymous character. When the film opens, Tristana is all in black, still in mourning for her recently deceased mother. The innocent, timid, orphaned teenager becomes the ward of Don Lope (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), a lecherous, hypocritical, overweening Manchegan aristocrat who wastes no time in seducing her. “I’m your father and your husband,” the Vandyked grandee crows to his charge, who remains a virtual prisoner in the Toledo home they share despite Lope’s professed beliefs in personal freedom and other ostensibly progressive views.

Yet Tristana, all too aware of her life “as a slave,” is not entirely without agency. On one of the surreptitious constitutionals she takes with Lope’s maid, Saturna (Lola Gaos), she meets, and later runs off with, Horacio (Franco Nero), a handsome young painter. But two years later, after a tumor has been discovered in her leg, Tristana demands to be returned to the address of her parent/lover/jailer. “She still thinks of you as her father,” the abased Horacio explains to Lope. This reunion, though, signals a complete shift in power: After the amputation of her afflicted limb, Tristana has the senescent Lope, now all too eager to minister to her, fully under her control.

Tristana, one of the greatest films from Buñuel’s extremely rich late period, bookended by Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and his final movie, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), exemplifies the director’s skill in skewering the entitled classes. Lope is especially pathetic whenever his false virtue is exposed: Smugly spouting, “Down with work that you have to do to survive,” like some second-rate Oscar Wilde, the nobleman is soon accosting his sister for ten thousand pesetas during a chance encounter in a park.

The mordancy of this project—which Buñuel, cowriting with Julio Alejandro, adapted from Benito Pérez Galdos’s 1892 novel (they set the film roughly three decades later)—is further heightened by the tarnishing of Deneuve’s porcelain perfection. As soon as the actress (who, twenty-six during Tristana’s filming, was already five years into her superstardom) speaks, she is already estranged from us, the Castilian lisp she affects obviously not her own: “This will be a proper Spanish film, I’ll be dubbed, which I sometimes find hard to accept,” Deneuve writes in her Diaries. Playing an amputee was even harder; on the penultimate day of shooting, the actress recorded, “Problems with my artificial leg: it has to be fixed on, turning is disastrous, and we’ve rehearsed so much today that the crutches are hurting my armpits.” But as she prepares to shoot the final scene—when Tristana, now an imperious doña, reveals her capacity for utmost cruelty— Deneuve happily reports a victory: “[Buñuel’s] compliment of the day, and it is one: ‘You’d be great in a vampire film.’ ” Thirteen years later, Tony Scott’s The Hunger would prove how accurate the Spanish master’s prediction was.

Tristana screens at BAMcinématek July 19 and 20 as part of the series “Buñuel,” which runs July 11–31.