Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Viridiana (1961)

220px-Viridiana_coverLuis Bunuel like another cinematic auteur, Ingmar Bergman, seems to often fill his films with religious imagery and themes, but whereas Bergman appears to have genuine questions about his own spirituality, Bunuel is all but content to subvert all such depictions for his own purposes. He has a wicked sense of humor with the opening crescendos of Handel’s “Messiah” playing over the credits only to come back later when his film is at its most tumultuous.

The story opens, of all places, in a convent with a pretty young novice (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows. But she is ordered by her superior to visit her long-estranged uncle. She is reluctant but goes anyways to his mansion in the country as a courtesy.

There she meets the lonely old man (Fernando Rey), isolated in his great home with only a few servants surrounding him. In young, vibrant Viridiana he finds joy and dare we say, love because in her face he sees the likeness of his now long deceased wife. She embodies the objects of all his passions and desires that he forgot so long ago when he was widowed. However, Viridiana is aloof and will show no affection towards him, ready to stay only as long as she has to. But he wants her to stay, needs her to be by his side forever, obsessing about her, and using all means necessary to keep her in his midst. It’s disconcerting how far he takes things, even lying to his niece that he took advantage of her in her slumber. Now if she leaves the house, she can never be the same woman she entered as, even if what Don Jaime is false. In the end, she does pack her bags in a tizzy and her hopeless uncle takes his life.

Now the life of a nun seems impossible, her life all of a sudden becoming tainted by these events. So she resigns to do the next best thing by taking her Uncle’s home and opening up its doors to the less fortunate — the beggars and the sickly. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t turn out especially well. She also becomes connected once more with her Uncle’s illegitimate son (Francisco Rabal), who has a more cynical view of the world. He sees her piety with an air of contempt.

In the chaotic interludes that follow, the house is torn to shreds by all the benefactors of Virdiana’s charity. While she is away, they make for themselves a rich feast, “A Last Supper,” pulling out all the stops like table clothes, fine china, and wine. What ensues is utter debauchery that Bunuel plays for laughs all the while Handel reverberates over the din.When Viridiana returns and sees the degeneracy around her she slowly dissolves into a shell of who she used to be. She’s been broken and much to her cousin’s delight, she’s lost her ardor, now jaded by all that is around her.

It’s a depressing conclusion suggesting that charity is all in vain because there is a degree depravity that courses through all people. In some sense, I find a Bunuel film more uncomfortable and disconcerting than most any, because he displays the most surreal, idiosyncratic, and even perverse things as comical. He lacks reverence and reveals the darker side of humanity all with a smile on his face. His style of filmmaking is abrasive because it rubs up against social mores and has fun with the baseness of mankind. If we note that before going forward, it still seems possible to learn from him and be a tad mystified by his work.

4/5 Stars

Review: The French Connection (1971)

frenchcon5There is a pervading gritty realism to William Friedkin’s French Connection that undoubtedly took some cues from the French New Wave and the Neorealist movements. Hand-held cameras are taken to the streets of New York and to the train terminals. There is literally trash piling up in the gutters, old dilapidated bathroom stalls, and worn out facades all over the city. It’s urban, depressed, and a place of crime. In many ways this film is like Bullitt for New York, in fact, Steve McQueen was even offered the lead.

However, this time around our main cop is Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider). Both play a key role, but Popeye (the man with the hat) is of the greater interest. He’s a wise guy, belligerent, barking, loud-mouthed hot head, often driven by obsession in his job. He also happens to be an undercover cop in the narcotics division. He’s used to getting dirty and using the rough stuff when necessary. After all, it’s a jungle out there and there’s no room for pushovers.

From the get-go, we come to understand that this story has a French Connection, in Marseilles to be exact, and we know who is involved (Fernando Rey). We just cannot quite pick out all the details. Simultaneously, on a hunch, Doyle and Russo start running surveillance on a guy they happen upon in a club. Things don’t quite add up since he runs a deli called Sal and Angie’s by day and lives it up at night. An undercover informant also tips Popeye off to a big shipment of heroin that’s coming in.

frenchcon9Sal Boca has to be into something and so a game of tailing begins on the streets after he and his French contacts are spotted together. Frog 1 named Charnier (Rey) has Popeye on his tail only to shake him adeptly. That’s only the beginning, however, after a sniper comes after Popeye and yet another chase ensues. The fugitive boards a train and Doyle commandeers a car to follow close behind. Thus, was born one of the greatest car chases of all time and it doesn’t even involve two cars. After the adrenaline of that moment has worn off Doyle and Russo are on another stakeout and this time impound a car belonging to frog # 2 Henri Devereaux. Popeye has a gut feeling that the vehicle’s dirty and they literally tear it apart end to end, with little luck. But he’s a force of nature and very little will get in the way of his obstinate drive.

frenchcon11When the drop finally takes place everything goes off smoothly enough, but there’s a roadblock, and Popeye is waiting for them with a playful wave. He’s got them now. The final roundup leads him into an old warehouse as the hunt continues, but The French Connection finishes open-ended. Sal was gunned down, the meeting was busted, but not everyone was caught, and Charnier seems to have vanished into thin air. To top it off, Doyle shoots the wrong man and without flinching continues his obsessive hunt.

Friedkin’s film was partially based on true events from the 1960s and the two men the story was patterned after actually are featured as the boys’ superior Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan) and federal agent Bill Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who has a longstanding dislike for Doyle. Their presence in the production of this film helps to lend to the realism and nuances that the film is able to take on. The score isn’t all that noticeable, but it’s a tense arrangement that adds some underlining anxiety to some scenes. Stakeouts get more interesting than you would ever give them credit for. Really on the simplest level, this film is about one man’s hunt, his obsessive chase, which at times no longer seems about justice at all, but personal vindication.

4.5/5 Stars

The French Connection (1971)

af50c-thefrenchconnectionIn this crime thriller starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, two detectives, Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo, work the grimy, tough streets of Brooklyn. They think they have happened upon a narcotics job and they use tapping and tailing to close in on the suspicious activity with a french connection. With no real results, they get pulled off the special assignment. That all changes after an unexpected twist followed by a wild chase. Doyle and his partner are finally close to cracking the case but it still takes more work and even more waiting. Finally, they seem to have the culprits but it ends far from perfectly for them. Up to the end Doyle is bent on finding “the frog” who has eluded him for so long. The ending felt a little too abrupt for my liking. However, this film did a good job at portraying the ugly and dirty side of New York realistically.

4.5/5 Stars