Commentary Magazine

Bunuel's Art

I’ve now had occasion in two of my last three appearances in COMMENTARY to mention the work of Luis Buñuel as a mark by which to measure the shortcomings of those films under discussion. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to discuss in itself Buñuel’s new film, Tristana. I am not among those who believe the best criticism springs always from admiration, but neither do I particularly enjoy writing about the failures of those artists about whom I care most. Of course, Tristana is in many ways an admirable work; masterly in the surgical precision of its style and in its elaboration of a dense network of significant detail; and its failure, if it can indeed be called this, of only the most intangible and ultimate kind. And yet, the failure seems to me a crucial one, and one endemic to Buñuel’s most recent work, possibly, by its nature, to remain so. And so finally, just because there are few whose work in films I value as much as I do Buñuel’s, the subject is one I don’t want to turn away from.

Like all of Buñuel’s greatest work, Tristana is about obsession, and all the elements of a classic Buñuel work are present. A beautiful and innocent young girl is orphaned and becomes the ward of her elderly uncle whose infatuation with her grows until his possessiveness has become a cage in which not only she but he, too, is trapped, and in which they both pace madly. But the uncle, Don Lope, is not the virtuous Christian and pillar of the community that one might expect from Buñuel’s earlier films; he is, rather, a blasphemous freethinker who frequently sounds like no one so much as Buñuel himself, at least the Buñuel advocated by his anticlerical conscriptors. It is probably true that Buñnuel has put more of some aspects of himself into the make-up of at least the surface of the uncle’s character than he has into the creation of any character in his work before. And yet this character’s “philosophy” proves as incapable as that of the right-thinking Francisco in El of containing depths of irrational impulse which well up within him, and provides as flimsy an armor against his abysmal fate. Again and again, Lope speaks out irreverently in behalf of just those “progressive” ideas Buñuel is presumed by some to “stand for,” and, in the end, he is brought as low as Francisco, and out of the same weaknesses.

Which is to say that both Lope and Francisco are, despite their divergent “philosophies,” essentially pathetic figures (and that Francisco, as much as Lope, is, as is so frequently denied of Buñuel, drawn with sympathy). Lope bears himself magnificently, whether casually misdirecting a policeman in pursuit of a thief (“He was weak and needed protection. . . . Men like me always defend the weak”), refusing to bargain with tradesmen even while selling his possessions at a loss (“A pawnbroker or a millionaire, they’re all bloodsuckers”), scoffing at marriage (“Look at those two. . . . Smell the sickly odor of marital bliss”), or holding court with his friends in a café (“When it comes to love and women, I don’t believe in sin”) . On money: “Money is vile unless we give it to those most in need”; on work: “Work isn’t noble as they say.” Asked to arbitrate a duel which is to be decided by the drawing of first blood, he declines magisterially to participate in such a farce; reading his newspaper, he scorns its rightist politics as “idiocy.” Above all, even when Tristana lies gravely ill and the doctor suggests the advisability of her confession: “A priest in my house! Never!”

During the scene in which Lope espouses his libertinism to his friends at the café, he scruples to make two exceptions to his claims for the freedom of love from moral inhibitions: “The wife of a friend . . . and the flower that blooms in perfect innocence.” At this moment, the camera cuts to Tristana, already living in Don Lope’s house, the conflict of appetites that will consume them already set in motion. “Who would harm you living with me? Where would you be safer?” Lope had asked her earlier, as she was about to move in with him, and he has told her that he wants her to love him as though he were her father. And, for a while, this tranquil arrangement prevails, rent only by Tristana’s hideous dream in which she sees her uncle’s severed head as clapper of one of the town’s great church bells, those bells which, as the bell ringer has complained to her, have ceased to mean anything but noise to the townspeople. “You screamed as though you’d seen the devil,” Lope’s servant tells Tristana as she wakes from her dream with a start. Previously, the servant had described her master as a good man whose only weakness is women, but who “sprouts horns” when there is a woman he desires.



Only a short time after his speech in the café, Lope is selling his possessions to provide money for new clothes for Tristana so that she may discard the drab ones of her extended mourning, and promising her that he will soon free her of such “superstitions”; the camera lingering fetishistically as we, with Lope, watch Tristana at the dinner table, dipping a piece of bread into the moist yolk of an egg. Before long, the uncle has seduced his strangely unresisting ward, and, almost immediately thereafter, the household’s balance of powers begins to alter. “Love must be free . . . no Chains,” Lope had declared earlier, and now rather wishfully affirms to Tristana, “I’d never impose my will on you. That’s why we’re happy. . . . You’ll set the boundaries of your own freedom.” But, out of Lope’s earshot, she replies, when the servant remarks on how much her uncle loves her, that she might love him more if only he loved her less. Vainly, Lope tries to disguise the appearance and infirmities of his age, and all the time Tristana grows less and less subtly contemptuous of him. Immediately before Lope’s first amorous advance on her, Tristana had asked him which of two identical columns of a building he preferred, replying, to his response of incomprehension, that no two things are alike and she can always choose between them; and, even as her confinement in Lope’s house closes tighter around her, she sustains the illusion of her freedom by making meaningless choices between two chickpeas. When, in defiance of Lope’s wishes, she goes out without him, she deliberately chooses between two streets, and, on the one she takes, meets a young painter with whom she plunges precipitantly into an affair.

Soon Lope’s suspicions are aroused, and he alternately entreats and commands her to confess her infidelity to him. “Remember, I’m responsible for you . . . both husband and father, whichever I choose,” he tells her. But his insistence only provokes her into greater defiance. Tauntingly, she asks him if she isn’t free, and he says he’ll kill her if he finds out that she has been deceiving him. Yet she grows increasingly insolent, tossing his hat in the air When he asks her to clean it, throwing out the bedroom slippers which she once attentively used to bring him, and deriding him to the servant who has become her confidante: of his sheepishness when caught looking his age, “A plucked rooster doesn’t crow”; and, “If only he’d treated me like a daughter, I’d love him.” “Whatever you say, I’m responsible for your actions,” Lope reaffirms, but Tristana only mocks him as a hypocrite. Finally, she runs off with her lover to whom she has confessed her intimacy with her uncle; Lope makes one last effort to stop them by confronting the painter and slapping his face with a glove, only to have his formal challenge met by his being struck down by the young man’s blow. Humiliated, Lope makes his way home alone through the deserted nighttime streets.

Two years pass, during which Lope inherits his family fortune which had been guarded by the devout sister with whom he feuded; he characterizes her funeral unregenerately as “that circus for priests.” He continues to long for Tristana, and then one day his servant tells him that she is back, though very ill, and that she wants to see him. Tristana remains with the painter, who offers Lope satisfaction on the field of honor, which Lope declines, and tells Lope that he had proposed marriage to Tristana but she had refused him. He says that Tristana thinks she’s going to die, and wants to die in Lope’s house since she thinks of him as her father. Lope consents to her wishes, and returns home to tell his servant, “She won’t run away from me again.” His prediction proves grotesquely true: Tristana has developed a tumor on her leg, and the leg must be amputated. “To keep a woman honest, break her leg and keep her home,” Lope had declared aphoristically early in the film, and now the irony echoes resonantly. He buys Tristana the piano she has wanted, and brings her gifts of her favorite pastries. At Lope’s insistence, the painter comes to visit Tristana, who tells him bitterly, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have brought me here. . . . Lope would never have brought me to another man’s house.” She is fitted with an artificial leg, and Lope assures her, “To some people, you’re even more appealing now.”



Time passes., and it is Lope no less than Tristana who seems to be imprisoned within their relationship. He pushes her in her wheelchair to and from church, and stops to trade courtesies with a policeman who pays his respects to her. She has become the outwardly respectable mistress of the household, presiding over his bourgeoisification. But to a priest who advises her to marry Lope, extolling the way he has “mellowed” and telling her that “age rounds off sharp edges,” she replies, “The kinder he is, the less I love him.” “There’s something evil about that feeling,” the priest warns. She entertains herself by titillating the mute son of Lope’s servant, but does eventually marry Lope in a church ceremony, following which she spurns Lope’s efforts to help her walk and later dashes his expectations of conjugal relations derisively. At last the apotheosis of bourgeois domestic virtue has been attained; Tristana, an embittered virago, limps desperately through the house as Lope, a sick old man, drinks hot chocolate with priests in his parlor, and tells them, “After all, gentlemen, life isn’t as grim as people think. Outside it’s snowing, but in here it’s warm. What a blessing.”

We see the windswept snow outside, and then, in a wonderfully eerie juxtaposition, the parlor, its table littered with cups and pitcher, now dark and deserted. Tristana wakens from her dream as Lope urgently calls her to fetch the doctor. She goes to the adjoining room to telephone, lifts and then puts down the receiver, feigning a conversation with the doctor so that Lope may hear her. Then she returns to Lope’s bedside, and calls to him in mounting excitement, but he has lapsed into unconsciousness. She throws open his windows, and the film ends with a staccato burst of evenly-timed shots: the swirling snow; she at his bedside; she putting down the receiver; she waking from her dream; Lope’s head as bell clapper; their wedding; the servant’s son; the painter; Lope kissing her immediately before her seduction by him; all to the accompaniment of a distorted sound like that of rushing wind and muffled bells.



I have made so lengthy a summary of Tristana in part because, since it is a foreign-language film, however successful, it is likely to be less accessible than films I have discussed previously in COMMENTARY, but chiefly because, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is composed of such lucid and meticulous detail as to make synopsis amount to exegesis. I don’t mean to say that things in it do not remain opaque despite attempts at explication; I believe I understand Tristana’s motivation in first submitting to Lope and later returning to him, but can by no means claim certainty about this; or even to say that things in it—her affair, and the whole character of the painter—are not cursory in their development. The painter isn’t an important character; he is little more than Tristana’s vehicle for attempting to assert her freedom from Lope; but this will not excuse the fact of the sequences with him being so flat and uninteresting (to be sure, Buñuel was saddled here with an actor he didn’t want). But the overall meaning and momentum of the film seem to me unmistakable: Lope’s violation of Tristana’s innocence has both robbed her of her “superstitions” and unsatisfyingly aroused her. His obsession is a claim on her freedom which she resists, a cage in which she can never be happy, but also a passion which she recognizes as stronger than any other that attempts to exert a claim on her. The “devil,” or at least a satyr, has interposed himself between her and the sound of her church bells, though the act proves as destructive to him as to her. And Lope, however he sinks deeper into the ways of respectability, can never possess her. I think it is not simply because of the fineness of Fernando Rey’s performance as Lope that his character seems to stand at the center of this film named for Tristana; that his pathos is the most deeply felt element of the film, and his degradation the more profoundly disturbing. With almost no emphasis on the director’s part, the scene of Lope’s cozy fraternization with the priests who have entered the blasphemer’s house at last (though by how devious a route they can never know) is a truly horrifying culmination of Lope’s obsession. It is Bufiuel’s witness to the power of the irrational maelstrom over the principles of any “philosophy.”



Yet the problem with Tristana, and it is a problem which has dogged Buñuel’s last three films, is that here is a film about obsession without any sense of obsession, a work about sexual passion without sensuality; one in which all the thematic elements are masterfully under control but something intangibly beyond this is missing. What these late films lack is any real surrender to their eroticism. Tristana is, in fact, a project which Buñuel had wanted to film for many years, which may account in part for its being so much more compelling a work than Belle de Jour or The Milky Way, but perhaps there are grounds for believing that Buñuel, who since Belle de Jour has been saying that he no longer has any desire to make films (but who has apparently been persuaded to continue by the fact of his lately having achieved a new position of creative independence), is to be taken at his word. In the past, Buñuel has been probably the most illuminating commentator on his own work of all major filmmakers; it may be that he remains so.



Artists, even great artists, age differently with respect to the practice of their art. The passion of a Yeats may increase with age even as that of an Eliot declines. Bufiuel’s art at its height is distinguished, I believe, by a passion as fierce as any we have seen in films; by a rage to discover the world as it is, and to question if it is as it should be. Such passion might be sustained in an artist’s late work; it is sustained, I think, in a work as late as The Diary of a Chambermaid, made when Buñuel was sixty-three, and, though in a much different vein, arguably even in Simon of the Desert of two years later. In February, Buñuel was seventy-one years old, his life spanning that of this century, and, if a certain dryness and brittleness, even a certain lack of involvement, has entered his work, I hardly feel myself capable of reproaching him for failing to recreate a richness and intensity as overwhelming as that of L’Age d’Or or Viridiana. It may be that Buñuel will make great films again; it may be that he will make no others. In any case, Tristana remains, despite the partisans of either persuasion, a testament to his continuing mastery and to the difficult fact that even great artists in their maturity can create works which may, in some essential ways, fail.


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