Monday, April 1, 2013

Strange paths to empowerment in unholy Toledo

Tristana. “Triste Ana,” her lovesick lover-guardian intones. The name invokes sadness—la tristeza. Sadness is written into her name and her name is the film’s perfect enigmatic title. She is not its protagonist, at least not unambiguously. Tristana’s is a heroine’s journey, from near-destitution and naïveté, to humble salvation in the home—and, eventually, the bed—of an aging aristocrat thriftily managing a dwindling fortune, to rebellion, escape, illness, return, empowerment, revenge. Yet Tristana is held at a distance, an obscure object of desire who, unlike her lover-guardian, is not designed for our identification. Her mystery and malleability is one of the wonders of this beguiling story.

Luis Buñuel wanted to make Tristana (1970), adapted from Benito Pérez Galdós’ novel, for years, and at one point nearly did so, in Mexico, with Sylvia Pinal. He’d made Viridiana (1964), another seductive and strange female-name-title, and one of his greatest films, also from Pérez Galdós, with Pinal, in his native Spain, and it took a while for the Spanish to get over it, the delicious flights of blasphemy most especially. But by 1969 they decided to let him come home to work for one last time. He swapped the novel’s 19th century Madrid for 1920s Toledo, with a Spain on the cusp of Civil War, and a location more in keeping with the cloistered-in-time feeling he was chasing—the exteriors are mostly narrow cobbled streets loomed over by high walls with few windows. There are clashes between authorities and workers in these streets, but such activities barely touch the central narrative thread, another of Buñuel’s tales of amour fou. Fascinating, mischievous, elegant, anthropologically alluring—Buñuel was obsessed with recapturing numerous peculiar details of the quasi-medieval Spain of his youth—the long-difficult-to-see Tristana is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Cohen Media Group.

It begins with the newly orphaned Tristana’s adoption by the socialist-nobleman-ladies man Don Lope. Tristana is played by Catherine Deneuve in the second of her two collaborations with Buñuel, the first being Belle de jour (1967). She moves seamlessly from wide-eyed wonder to fiery resentment. (The only downside to Denueve’s casting is that her dialogue is overdubbed by some chirpy española; there’s a French version out there somewhere, but then you’ve got to put up with most of the rest of the cast being overdubbed by a bunch of Frenchmen.) Don Lope is played by the hopelessly charismatic Fernando Rey, providing Buñuel with another of his older gentlemen obsessed with younger women, variations of which can be found in, of course, Viridiana and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Don Lope is given to declaring his strict moral standards, but when he bends Tristana into becoming his lover he breaks his own rule about seducing the innocent. He will pay for this violation. Inevitably, even in a place as repressed as this, Tristana meets a young painter (Italian heartthrob Franco Nero) and they run off. She returns years later, with a tumor in her calf, and renews her codependency with Don Lope. Throughout the film, Tristana delights in choosing favourites amongst the most banal items: columns, streets, garbanzos. It’s a child’s game, a way of playing at self-determination, and thus, ultimately—when cancer forces Tristana to “choose” a leg—a source of cruel irony. Power in Tristana is precarious and fleeting. Don Lope with grow old and harmless; Tristana will become crippled yet domineering. In one of the film’s richest scenes she methodically exposes her abbreviated body to a deaf-mute boy: one social outcast finding her hierarchical place amongst other outcasts.

Cohen’s Tristana features several excellent supplements, including two written essays, a video essay, an audio commentary featuring Deneuve and critic Kent Jones, and, my personal favourite—since one must choose favourites—an excerpt from Deneuve’s production journal.