Catherine Deneuve: Tristana | Repulsion | Belle de Jour

Film Actresses & Global Classics


In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.


Catherine Deneuve as Tristana and Fernando Rey as Don Lope in Luis Buñuel’s Tristana, 1967

Catherine Deneuve, baring her breasts off-screen, in Luis Buñuel’s Tristana.

Carlos Fuentes: ‘Sex is very powerful in Buñuel’s films because it is felt rather than seen’.

Carlos Fuentes: Luis, what is your attitude to sex?

Luis Buñuel: Personally, I’m monogamous and discreet. An old man can easily make a fool of himself; like Don Lope in Tristana, I believe in a chaste eroticism. You can attribute that to my Jesuit education. Sexual pleasure for me is directly linked with the idea of sin and only exists in a religious context. The sexual act cannot be reduced to a chapter on hygienics; it is an exciting, dark, sinful, diabolical experience. Sex is a black tarantula and sex without religion is like an egg without salt. In the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas says that fornication between man and woman, even if they be married, is nevertheless a venial sin. Now, I think that’s a very sexy idea. Sin multiplies the possibilities of desire.

From an article/interview with Buñuel by Carlos Fuentes in The New York Times, 1973.

How does Bunuel’s vision of sex play out in Tristana? A reading of the film as a drama of sexual revenge offers an answer.

What’s the story? It goes like this: Upon the death of her mother (fast upon that of her father), Tristana, not yet twenty, falls under the tutelage of Don Lope, a man in his mid-fifties. In the film’s tripartite structure, we move from Tristana’s relative innocence to her incestuous seduction by Don Lope and then to her revenge for this violation. This primary dramatic arc is overlaid with other lines of development: Tristana’s evolution from quiet individualist to outspoken idealist (in her relationship with Horatio) to embittered cynic; the changes in her psychological state, from contentment to entrapment to rebellion; Don Lope’s trajectory from domestic tyranny to calculated tolerance to suffering resignation; the evolution in Don Lope’s circumstances, from modest poverty to economic misery and finally to wealth. In the reflections that follow I will focus on the intersection of the primary lines—Tristana’s evolution from ingénue to rebel to bitch and Don Lope’s from despot to ‘manager’ to martyr—and, as the understated impetus of all that unfolds, the ‘incest’ at the heart of the film.

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

One’s ‘choice of symptom’, as I’ve implied in my discussion of Repulsion and Belle de Jour, is never innocent. So why does Tristana develop a tumour in a leg that leads to the leg being amputated (just below the knee)? Neither Galdós in his novel nor Bunuel in the film give any clue, but the film’s foregrounding of sexual dynamics justifies, I believe, the following interpretation: Don Lope’s sexual relations with Tristana are a clear case of incest (he is a father-figure to her), and they generate a slow-burning trauma that assumes bodily expression as the tumour in her leg.

Seduced into sleeping with Don Lope, she feels increasing disgust for him as her relationship with her new lover, Horatio, develops. So she runs away with Horatio, in pursuit of a love unconstrained by any institution, be it sanctified tutelage (husband-wife) or merely official (guardian-ward). After the rapture of their early love, she is sorely disappointed to find Horatio intent on following convention. So she runs back to Don Lope, and with the amputation of her leg ensures, firstly, that she will no longer run away from revenging her violation, and secondly, that Don Lope, trapped by his lust and love and sense of duty, will not run away from her. ‘There’ll be no more running’, she seems to have decided: revenge is cruelest in a huit clos.

If Tristana now has something of Lady Macbeth, her rallying cry, as we’ll see two paragraphs down, is not ‘unsex me here’ but ‘sex me here’.

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’ (Congreve, The Mourning Bride): In Tristana, for ‘fury’ read ‘revenge’ and for ‘scorned’ read ‘violated’. In the first two thirds of the film Tristana’s emotions are richly varied: In the bell tower with Saturno she is a winning blend of curiosity and confidence, radiating a red-blooded wholesomeness into which Don Lope’s severed head comes to cast a poison; confessing her ‘dishonour’ to Horatio, she is torn between past shame and future pride; with Saturna, she is conspiratorial and complicit, forthright and assertive. But in the last third of the film, as she exacts her revenge, her contempt is all-consuming: one-legged with Don Lope, she gives full reign to her disdain. On their wedding night, for example, she naturally refuses him her favours, but does so with a cutting put-down: ‘At your age!’.

Something else, however, differentiates the last third of the film from the first two: Tristana, despite her amputation, is confident in her sexuality. Don Lope’s desire for her, if more tender, is nevertheless as fervent after the operation as before, and in Saturno’s masturbation fantasies—for that is all Tristana allows him—she is as fully present as previously. Horatio, however, shows only brotherly concern, and for that she despises him: ‘Don Lope would never have let me go to another man’s house’.

Tristana’s wooden leg strewn with her panties and bra

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

If Congreve’s line from The Mourning Bride has become proverbial, it is, of course, because scorn—and sexual scorn in particular—is the only weapon a woman can wield when effective power is in the hands of the man (or, in the personal realm, perceived to be so, given the dynamics of the feminine and femininity). Flaunting her sexuality to intensify the sting of her withholding it, then, gives a sharper edge to a woman’s revenge: If, in the first two thirds of the film, Tristana’s face was luminous, in the latter third, shadows of Bunuel’s black tarantula fall upon it: shadows that her make-up only make more ominous.

It is no surprise, then, that Tristana is one of Catherine Deneuve’s favourite roles. She has often said how appealing she found it to play the character’s evolution over time. Indeed, the movement from passive obedience to active rebellion, from wide-eyed wonder to jaded disdain, furnished the actress an opportunity to draw on a broad palette of emotional colours. Her natural economy of gesture and predilection for nuance alternated with her gift for expressing anger and placing the cutting remark. If Deneuve, with her face alone, can launch a thousand ships or sink an entire armada, in Tristana she employs the ‘nihilism of beauty’ rather differently. Indeed, the act of incest, like a slow poison, comes to imprint violence on her face, a violence directed not only against Don Lope, but against everyone who she deems complicit with him. Don Lope, by imposing sexual relations on Tristana, has made her a threefold orphan: already motherless and fatherless, she becomes orphaned of her substitute father.

Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero, Tristana, Luis Buñuel

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Buñuel

The amputation of Tristana’s leg, then, did not entirely remove the poison of incest from her blood: her anger and bitterness act as an antidote to its lingering effects, while her affirmed sexuality serves to reinforce the femininity vampirized by her substitute father. And, in an attempt to rid herself once and for all of the persecuting head in the bell—the image of incest—she hastens the death of the dying Don Lope. All these events, internal and external, Catherine Deneuve is called upon to incarnate, and to that end she makes her deadpan face a mirror of Tristana’s emotions, conveying with equal felicity the power of the repressed and the intensity of release. Her performance in the role is one of her finest; her unique attributes beautifully serve the film.

In this post, then, I hope I’ve shown that beyond her ‘legendary beauty’ and ‘iconic status’, Catherine Deneuve is, quite simply, a great actress.

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Buñuel

Catherine Deneuve: ‘What I call private life is simply personal life. For me, life is private. Which doesn’t prevent me from voicing my views on subjects that are considered private. But I have always been fiercely protective of my private life. Today, I have the impression that time has proven me right in that regard. Very few people can imagine, or even believe me when I tell them, that I live so simply. Very simply.’ (Interview in L’En-je lacanien, my translation.)

Luis Bunuel, Tristana, BFI DVD

Benito Pérez Galdós, Tristana

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved