Monday, January 07, 2013

Tristana: 1970 movie (Spain)

Tristana (1970) directed by Luis Buñuel
IMDb.com page for the movie

Fernando Rey: Don Lope
Catherine Deneuve: Tristana
Franco Nero: Horacio
Lola Gaos: Saturna
Jesús Fernández: Saturno

Tristana was one of the few movies adapted from a novel that I watched before reading the book. After reading the novel I’m more impressed with what Buñuel accomplished, keeping the general outline of the narrative while making rather dramatic changes to add power to the story. As usual, I will focus mostly on comparing the movie and the novel. The general outline of the two are roughly the same: Tristana’s mother dies and leaves Tristana as ward to the libertine Don Lepe. The old lecher has a perverse sense of chivalry that has become anachronistic. Unable to resist Tristana’s beauty Don Lepe adds her to his list of sexual conquests. Tristana meets and falls in love with the painter Horacio, but a tumor causes the amputation of one of her legs. Horacio effectively marginalizes himself and Tristana marries Don Lepe.

One of the biggest changes to the story is the setting. Galdós’ novel is set indefinitely in the late 1800s in a suburb of Madrid. Buñuel moves the timeframe to the late 1920s/early 1930s in Toledo. The tight, winding streets of Toledo provide a different feel than the indefinite spaciousness of the novel. Underscoring one of Galdós’ points, though, is how little has changed in the intervening 50 years. Another major change is the expansion in roles for Saturna, the housekeeper, and Saturno, her son. Saturno is barely mentioned in the novel but is given a significant role almost completely created from nothing. Buñuel makes Saturno a deaf-mute, set apart from society in a mirroring of Tristana’s exclusion as a dependant woman and foreshadowing her debility. Only when he become a house servant does he seem to find a place in society. Saturno’s inconsequential sexual pranks on Tristana appear as a weakened predatory version of Don Lepe. Saturna proves to be a more complicated character in the movie. In the novel she follows along with Don Lepe’s dictatorial rule of the household, weakly standing up to him once. In the movie Saturna provides much the same function in the house but takes a more active role in defying Don Lepe when helping Tristana see Horacio.

There are many other changes that add to the story even though the movie follows the same framework. In the novel Horacio leaves Madrid to take care of his ailing aunt. The movie has Horacio and Tristana leaving Toledo together for two years. Tristana’s tumor is the cause for them returning. In bringing Tristana back to Don Lope as she requested, Horacio earns her scorn and loses her. Horacio fails her sh&t test: “If you loved me you wouldn’t have brought me to this house. Don Lope would never have brought me to another man’s house.” Prior to leaving Toledo, Don Lope had slapped Horacio in the face with his gloves, following his anachronistic respect for the duel. In reply Horacio punches Don Lope in the face, his high-water mark for manliness. Horacio diminishes on the screen after their return and quietly disappears. There’s no mention of him marrying, as in the novel, nor is there need to—his betrayal was bringing Tristana back to Don Lope.


In the novel Don Lope’s relatives bribe him to marry Tristana, promising much needed money after their relationship is legitimate. The two marry and settle down, approaching something that looks like happiness together. In the movie, though, Don Lope inherits money while Horacio and Tristana are away, allowing him to reacquire everything he had sold or pawned for funds. The difference between the two is marked—in the movie Don Lope and Tristana do not have to marry in order to acquire the much needed funds, making Tristana’s agreement to marry Don Lope that much more ambiguous. But then her development is not based on the arts as much in the movie, focusing instead on her emerging sexuality and her desire for control and vengeance. From Colin Partridge’s essay on the film in Tristana: Buñuel’s Film and Galdós’ Novel: A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995):
In Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal Tristana adapts from the pleasing charm of a schoolgirl with plaits to the anguished determination of a woman marred by a sense of injustice. In the novel Don Lope was the supreme manipulator; in the film, as he loses control over events, Tristana’s grasp inexorably tightens. In the six years of the film’s action she grows to maturity until, finally, only she has the strength and insight to exercise power over the household and over the local elite society which Don Lope’s improved finances have opened to her. In the process of her development, she becomes an incarnation of female power holding together impossible contradictions born of psychological bitterness rather than physical disability. Buñuel’s subtle direction draws Tristana from background to foreground in scene after scene until, in the closing scenes of the last sequence, she dominates the screen—clumping on her crutches along the corridor of the country house, and finally moving as rapidly as her condition allows from Don Lope’s bed to a telephone and then back to open the bedroom windows.

Buñuel adds accents to Don Lope’s aging and descent into dotage. Similar to Álvaro Mesía in La Regenta, it’s implied that sex with the younger woman speeds his decline. After sexual relations end between Don Lope and Tristana, though, he inherits money and it reinvigorates him. The improvement is temporary and the view of the self-proclaimed heretic nattering with priests emphasizes how much he has changed. The movie adds the death of Don Lope with Tristana making one last important choice—whether or not to call the doctor. While the death is one of the final scenes in the movie, it underscores Tristana’s control of the situation. She tells Saturna early in the movie about her ability to discriminate between two choices and as the movie progresses her decisions exert more authority and influence.

An exceptional movie, both in the writing and in the acting. The ambiguity and irony in Galdós is a perfect fit for Buñuel’s style.

(Update: 21 Feb 2014): I just found this essay by Jeremy of the Readin blog. While mostly about Buñuel's career and accomplishments, there is a sizable portion on Tristana.

4 comments:

Richard said...

Saw this at least once for a Spanish class years and years ago and remember liking it but probably not as much as you did. I still prefer Viridiana, but I'm really looking forward to The Exterminating Angel for my next Buñuel. Very interesting to hear about the changes Buñuel made to the novel in the film adaptation, though.

Dwight said...

I'm looking forward to the other Galdós adaptation Buñuel did, Nazarin, but I want to read the novel first.

There's something really troubling about Viridiana and Tristana. Galdós and Buñuel seem to be really made for each other. As I said my appreciation for this movie grew after I read the novel--that doesn't usually happen.

I'm looking forward to hearing about The Exterminating Angel!

Richard said...

Dwight, I should put in a plug for Buñuel's memoir (available in English as My Last Sigh). If you haven't read it yet (I can't remember if you've talked about it or not previously), you should because it's a hoot. Of course, I should take my own advice and read it again myself [mentally juggling this year's TBR plan already as we speak, ha ha]. Cheers!

Dwight said...

Colin Partridge quotes a bit from the memoir and it does sound interesting. I also taped a special on Buñuel that aired a few weeks ago but haven't watched it yet. I'm (very slowly) getting to everything, though!

By the way, I didn't mention in the post but many clips (and longer) can be found of the movie on YouTube. Consider this the update.