Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel is back on the slate of revived oldies, and “Tristana,” his 1970 drama about a vengeful inversion of control in a sexual relationship, is the feature attraction.
The film isn’t the best Buñuel, but it is good Buñuel, and coming from the 20th-century artist who created surreal scenarios and sadomasochistic characters with iconoclastic aplomb, that’s enough.
The movie is less explicitly surreal than other fare by the 1900-born director, whose works include “Belle de Jour,” “That Obscure Object of Desire” and “Un Chien Andalou,” a silent, not-for-the-squeamish short made with Salvador Dali.
But it does supply many a Buñuel staple: perversity, dark humor, negative views of religion and government, Freudian dreams and bourgeois hypocrisy.
Co-written by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro (adapting Benito Perez Galdos’ novel) and transpiring in Toledo, Spain, in the 1920s or 1930s, the film stars a post-“Belle de Jour” Catherine Deneuve as Tristana, an orphaned innocent still in her teens.
Tristana becomes the ward of Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a middle-aged aristocrat and pleasure proponent who defends the downtrodden, disdains the church and decries authoritarianism, except in arenas he personally controls.
Initially, Don Lope tells Tristana he’d like her to regard him as a father, but he soon seduces her and adds “husband” to his role.
He tells her she is free but responds possessively when Tristana, who feels “dishonored” by the relationship, leaves him for a young artist, Horatio (Franco Nero).
A few years later, Tristana, diagnosed with a tumor that necessitates the amputation of her leg, returns to Don Lope and — making their “sinful” relationship “holy,” to quote the priest — they marry. But as Don Lope ages and withers, the now cold-hearted Tristana is the one holding the reins, and she makes things horrible for both of them.
Essentially a straightforward melodrama, the film doesn’t match Buñuel’s aforementioned features in intrigue or dimension.
The dubbed-into-Spanish Deneuve, while emotionally credible, is hard to buy as a woman with a Spanish upbringing. Nero (also in the current revenge drama “Django Unchained”) is playing a plot device.
Still, “Tristana” is an engrossing, entertaining, emotionally complex drama that, unlike Hollywood blam-fests, presents revenge as anything but sweet. It impressively demonstrates how psychological violence, horror-wise, can outdo bullets and blood.
Rey, who played a similar character in Buñuel’s “Viridiana,” is stellar as the human but devilish Don Lope.
Buñuel’s surrealist palette, while drier than usual, produces an indelible image: Don Lope’s head, in Tristana’s dreams, serving as a church-bell clapper.
In times when movie remakes are a near-norm and “reboots” are presented as akin to new, “Tristana” feels nervy and original. Screening with a restored print, it merits a visit.