The Teasingly Withdrawn
There are a couple of useful remarks on Tristana in Catherine Deneuve's autobiographical tome Close Up and Personal. One is where she comments on how she once teased director Luis Buuel on the set of Tristana about a visually attractive shot, and ten minutes later Buuel came up to her and said he didn't like obvious shots and didn't like the viewer to be aware of the camera. The other is that Buuel was very sensitive to noise. These are merely casual remarks, but they capture well a certain quality to the director's work. He is a filmmaker for whom visual style and noise are anathema. His camera follows the action quite succinctly, with few stylistic elaborations. His soundtracks are usually subdued affairs, the later films often without non-diegetic music, and with also little sense of off-screen sound. His is a matter of fact universe, no matter the surrealist dimension that runs through the work of this filmmaker who started his career co-directing Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or with Salvador Dali.
Often this apparent contradiction between a straightforward cinematic approach and the surrealist dimension is present due to the inexplicable aspect residing within his characters. They do not act at all in contradiction to his style, but they exemplify it in a way that brings out the surrealist aspect of his work. There are two things worth noting here: one is the perverse element to many of his characters; the second the element of the ide fixe. This perversity may be sexual - as in Diary of a Chambermaid, The Phantom of the Liberty - moral -as in the middle-aged central characters' sexual abstinence in El - or absurd: Mathieu's inability to see the two sides of Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire. Often the ide fixe is simply a variation on this as characters hold to ideas that have little foothold in conventional reality
This is clearly the case in Tristana, an adaptation of Benito Perez Galdos's novel, where Fernando Rey's impoverished haute bourgeois is forced to sell off his silverware, after the family inheritance has been handed down to his sister, and he has run out of money. At one moment Don Lope insists on taking less than the silver is worth: his pride refuses to allow him to haggle, no matter if his impoverishment has forced him to sell. It is consistent with an earlier moment in the film where a criminal is running way from the police and the police ask which direction he ran off in, and Don Lope points them the wrong way. He believes he's more sympathetic to those against authority, even if he is obviously himself a member of the authoritarian class.
What is partly so interesting about Buuel's work is that he doesn't stylistically acknowledge perversity of behaviour, and this plays up the dryness of the film's humour. This is a comedic touch that is consistent with wisdom, as the inexplicability of character meets the indifference of Buuel's style. At the end of the film, with Don Lope very ill, Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) pretends to phone for a doctor, and, afterwards, with Don Lope barely conscious, opens the windows on a snowy night. Certainly the camera moves in these moments, but it moves as the director's camera so often does: with the efficiency and discretion of a house servant - of which Buuel's films have many. As Tristana pretends to phone, the camera moves from medium shot to medium close-up without a cut, and then afterwards, cuts to Don Lope lying in bed as the camera pulls away from a medium close-up to show Tristana entering the room. This is clearly the narrative high point of the film, but it is filmed with 'Buuelian equanimity", not very different, say, from the way he films, earlier, Tristana's departure from the town with her lover. As the maid and Don Lope walk away from the station after she has left, Buuel's camera moves from a medium close up of Don Lope to a medium long shot as he walks away but without cutting. These are potentially dramatic moments, but Buuel films them in such a way that his aesthetic consistency is more important than dramatic excitement: his wisdom resides in observing everything as on the same plane of significance. He views human idiosyncrasies, foibles and misdemeanours as formally equivalent.
It is such an approach that helps us to make sense of Tristana, and also Raymond Durgnat's belief that the director's mind "should be an open book by now, after thirty-plus films, and seventy years of commentary on them, and him. Yet his work remains quite secretive, teasing, withdrawn." It allows us not to interpret the film, of course, as Durgnat's comment also implies, but it helps us to make sense of our own inexplicable response to the work. After all, there is nothing especially unmotivated about Tristana's behaviour. She was taken in by Don Lope after her mother died, her virginity was taken from her by this man she was financially reliant upon, and later she returns to his house after the inheritance falls to him and she has become very ill, and where she eventually loses a leg.
There is plenty room for resentment in this young woman's life, but the director has so eschewed the body language of resentfulness we may miss that much of the story has lent itself to its development. This would have been deliberate on Buuel's part. According to an assistant director, Pierre Lary, "he positioned the camera and then made the actors move in very precise patterns. He never gave them psychological hints. He just gave them a rhythm." This combination of refusing to give the characters psychological motivations, a visual style that would not offer the emotional exclamation mark of the close-up, and a soundtrack that refuses non-diegetic music cues, leaves both characters and the audience at one remove from the story being told. If we describe the film verbally, we can easily offer a sense of Buul's style at odds with the subject: we can say it is about a young woman who is casually exploited and demeaned by an old man who takes her in, and who eventually gets her revenge when he lies ill in bed. This would be an over-simplification, of course, but not really erroneous.
It is rather that the problem lies in how this resentfulness passes through the character. If psychology lends itself well to motivation, and each stage of the cinematic journey is matched by evolution of character - central to the character arc so prevalent in mainstream cinema - Buuel often instead offers not evolution but repetition. This is partly what in Over-Sensitivity Jalal Toufic means when he uses the term 'radical closure' to describe Buuel's narrative approach. Toufic says of The Exterminating Angel, for example, that "this closure will allow, if there is sufficient time, for all the possibilities to be gone through..." and this reflects repetition over evolution. He adds that central to radical closure is a foreshadowing, yet this is a foreshadowing that is less narratively programmatic - a knife that will later be useful to the drama of the story - than allusively pertinent. When Tristana dreams twice of Don Lope's head swinging back and forth, this is less narrative prefiguring, a la the knife. It is more sub-conscious preoccupation: a repetition of feeling rather than anticipation of action
It is interesting that Hitchcock proclaimed late in Buuel's career that he was the greatest filmmaker alive, for while both were very interested in the sub-conscious and repetition, Hitchcock was expected to provide narrative through-lines that the Spaniard was under no obligation to offer. Did this mean that Buuel could be truer to foreshadowed thought over foreshadowed story: the difference really between the knife that will come into play in a Hitchcock film, and the recurrent dream in Tristana?
Now we want to conclude by saying how the exploration of the character and the exploration of the image come together. The characters must to some degree remain mysteries to themselves, and Buuel's style must reflect this enigma. When Lary says Buuel was interested in the choreography of the bodies over the psychology, this is vitally important. The character must act in a way that has not been narratively prefigured, so that the psyche can remain a blank slate open to caprice. When Tristana decides not to phone the doctor, we must feel that she could just as easily have done so; when she opens the window and leaves Don Lope to freeze to death she might as readily have covered him with extra blankets.
That this alternative was possible does not mean Tristana has no reason to kill Don Lope. Rather that it has not been motivationally worked towards, and could thus easily be otherwise: it is the opposite of the obligatory scene in drama, where motivated behaviour leads to unavoidable action This could leave us with a contradiction in relation to an earlier point we made: that Buuel is often interested in characters for whom the ide fixe is of such importance. But the ide fixe is not the same as motivation, and may eveefully opposed: that the ide fixe lends itself to repetition, the motivational to progression. This allows us to see both conscious and sub-conscious fixations, however. If Don Lope believes in certain values and routines - from an insistent sympathy for the poor over the rich; the habits of long walks and afternoons at the caf - for Tristana, without power, without the autonomy of a Don Lope, the fixed idea is less consciously present. At the end of the film it may surprise her, and it is likely to surprise the viewer, where this 'sub-conscious uprising' comes from. It is a one woman rebellion rising up from her inner self. The closing images, a series of fragmentary flashbacks, seem to justify her decision, though we can't expect the character herself to rationally, motivationally explain why she allowed Don Lope to die.
© Tony McKibbin