Reduced to its most basic elements, Luis Buñuel’s 1970 provocation Tristana has a “hell hath no fury” plot rooted in Medea: Woman is wronged, woman suffers, woman takes cold revenge. But it’s a prime example of how many layers of significance a great filmmaker can add to the bones of an age-old tale of woe. There are allusions to Spain under Generalissimo Franco and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, resonances specific to the narrow passages of Toledo, surrealist dream sequences along the lines of his 1967 classic Belle De Jour, Freudianism run amok, and the director’s expected skewering of bourgeois values and hypocrisy. Some of the those references are immediately graspable, others more obscure, which makes it fortunate that the Cohen Film Collection—a promising upstart that debuted last month with Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief Of Bagdad on Blu-ray—has given Tristana a Criterion-level treatment, with liner-notes essays and diaries, a visual essay, and a commentary track to put Buñuel’s achievement into perspective.
Good thing, too, because the film can get strange and elusive even on a surface level, following two complex characters whose motives and actions are not too easily grasped. Based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós—whose Nazarin Buñuel adapted in Mexico more than a decade earlier—Tristana stars a perfectly cold, ravishing Catherine Deneuve as a virginal young woman who goes off to live with aging aristocrat Fernando Rey after her mother dies. Considered a wise, upstanding gentleman in the community, Rey preys on Deneuve behind closed doors, eventually coercing her into his bed, but his alternating roles as father and husband—whatever suits his purposes—foment hostility and rebellion. Deneuve finds a way out when she runs off with a young artist (Franco Nero), but when a tumor develops in her leg, requiring amputation, she returns again to Rey with revenge on her mind.
Though freighted with symbolic value—for the socialist principles he doesn’t apply to himself or for the image of a wise and courtly gentleman that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—Rey isn’t so easily reduced to a monster, nor is Deneuve entirely the righteous victim. They’re more complicated characters, with deep flaws and perversions, and Buñuel’s taste for provocation doesn’t rely on turning them into reducible types. For a film so simply plotted, Tristana is thick with mystery and meaning, as difficult to decipher as a recurring dream that has Rey’s severed head serving as a bell clapper. Is it a nightmare? A fantasy? Both? Buñuel seems happy to leave viewers scratching their heads.
Key features: An impressive assortment of special features, with a liner-notes essay by Richard Porton, an excerpt from Raymond Durgnat’s 1977 Buñuel biography, a commentary-track discussion between Deneuve and critic Kent Jones, and an alternate ending that isn’t nearly as good as the one that made the cut.