I really liked this film. It looked great and it had an air of great sincerity and passion. This belied its plot matter a little, which is melodramatic: the title character is an orphan who is taken in by a dignified but somewhat feckless gentleman, Don Lupe. She is obliged to become his lover – eventually she becomes fed up with this situation and leaves him for the handsome painter. Tristana becomes seriously ill, losing a leg and decides to return to Don Lupe, who by this point is past his best. She, having matured, now realises and harnesses her power to dominate over him.
We might expect a run-of-the-mill period melodrama. We get the setting: old Toledo looks fantastical and instantly arresting. We also receive a fascinating study of character as the relationship between the distinguished old man and the young maid intertwines and end up turned upside down. Don Lupe starts off as an exemplary bourgeois socialist gent: a man of leisure living off of his means, garrulously atheistic and anti-clerical. He’s a hypocrite too when he takes Tristana off of the street as, we find out, a toy for his gratification.
Tristana accepts this situation undemonstratively. In this first third, she is blameless. As the narrative proceeds, this virtue becomes more and more ambiguous. She starts to understand herself, exercising her freedom to leave and eventually return to Don Lupe. Her return is motivated by her material needs and this motivation exercises the theme twist where Tristana is a cold, distant nurse-like matriarch over the man, who is amiably old and tired; winding down his days with card games with the local priests.
What has happened? Desires, motives, sex and power. Human relationships and time. How we try to influence one another to our own personalities and will, paying no heed to the question if this is desirable and none at all to the consequences. That we are responsible for ourselves and that we have to take decisions through our life’s course based on what is best for us now, not on what we would desire ourselves to be.
That all of this exploration of our selves takes place within the framework of a provincial melodrama is something else to notch against the genius of Bunuel. This is a remarkably reflective film and a quiet masterpiece.