“It is a poetic principle that the freedom of the individual must fight against the restrictions of reality… I am still, thank God, an atheist.”
– Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was hugely interested in depicting the complexities of human relationships and his 1970 film Tristana is the most explicit example of that.
The movie is the story of Don Lope (Fernando Rey) a middle-aged atheist/Marxist who becomes the orphan Tristana’s (Catherine Deneuve) guardian after the death of her mother. While determined to only treat her as his daughter he becomes tempted and forces her into a sexual relationship. He rationalizes this and argues that she’d do worse than that being left on the street.
The girl is disgusted by his sexual advances and is holding a grudge against the old man over it. She secretly goes out of Don Lope’s house and meets a handsome young painter (Franco Nero) with whom he runs away. However, she falls ill and develops a tumor in her leg, under this impression that she doesn’t have much time to live she goes back to Done Lope’s household. Don Lope calls a doctor who suggests that her life can be saved by the amputation of her leg. Thus she survives and stays with the man whom she wants to avenge for taking her virginity as a young girl. Don Lope’s much older and weaker now, reduced to playing cards with priests just to have some company even though he is an atheist.
This movie never becomes a melodrama about a poor young girl taken advantage of by a father figure and disabled by the hands of fate, though it could easily be. The whole situation is appalling and that is exactly what Buñuel wanted it to be – exploring the complexities of human nature and the sadomasochism of human beings.
There are some recurring dream scenes in the movie. One is Tristina’s dream about the severed head of Don Lope’s on a church ball. According to some, that was one of Buñuel’s own recurring dreams: Buñuel was a lifelong atheist just like Don Lope.
To make the situation more disgusting than it already is Buñuel gets the deaf-mute boy of Don Lope’s servant involved in the story as well. He desires Tristana, but the girl who is bitter and cold after the amputation of her leg rejects him but mercilessly tortures him at the same time (revealing her naked body to him from the balcony).
Not many directors can take us to their own private world of nightmares and dreams and show us the ugly side of human nature and still be able to make an excellent movie. That is why Luis Buñuel is still considered to be one of the best directors of all time.