Like his Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel’s Tristana centers on a female character initially associated with innocence and/or vulnerability. Eventually, however, she is revealed to be an independent woman in charge of her own sexuality.
Here that woman is the title character, played by Catherine Deneuve. When her mother dies, the 19-year-old Tristana moves in with Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a much older guardian who lives for his own pleasure. (He detests work, and claims that the ten commandments addressing sexuality were not divinely ordered, but added by Moses “for political reasons that don’t affect me.”) At first he embraces his role as Tristana’s platonic protector, but he being a hedonist and Tristana being played by Deneuve, he eventually desires more. Tristana, at first, is happy to receive this additional, adult attention, but after a few years of restriction and boredom (Don Lope rarely lets her go out alone) she begins to pursue her own desires. And so the tables are comically turned.
For all his critique of Catholic repression, Buñuel, with Tristana, nevertheless depicts sexual liberation as a snake that eats its own tail. The personal pursuit of pleasure works for Don Lope, but only as long as Tristana denies herself. When she lives similarly, he comes undone. Rey—who also appeared in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Viridiana, and That Obscure Object of Desire—is quite amusing as he traces Don Lope’s transition from carefree lothario to ridiculous clown (consider his increased obsession with grooming his mustache). Deneuve, meanwhile, is transformative, playing Tristana as a naive waif at the start, then as a feisty feminist with an eye for art, and eventually as a bitter, scarred woman—figuratively, due to Don Lope’s treatment of her, and literally when a blood disease means the amputation of one of her legs.
With that bit of body horror, Tristana takes on an eerie, sinister sensibility for its final third. Near the end of the film, as an aging Don Lope chuckles over hot chocolate with his friends, Tristana paces up and down the hallway on crutches, the rhythmic tapping of wood on tile like the ticking of a malevolent clock. I won’t say how things end for Don Lope, except to note the particularly Buñuelian dream Tristana has: of the nearby church bells ringing, except that the clapper of the bell has been replaced with Lope’s lopped-off head.