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The Old Age of William Tell (A study of Bunuel's Tristana )

From: MLN
Volume 116, Number 2, March 2001 (Hispanic Issue)
pp. 295-314 | 10.1353/mln.2001.0023

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MLN 116.2 (2001) 295-314

To acquire power is to acquire age

R. Vaneigem (154)

Buñuel's Tristana, based on Galdós' 1892 novel of the same title, has attracted many critics interested in the relationship between narrative and film. Most of these critical studies have explored the link between the film and the nineteenth-century novel from which it originates. I would like to follow a different path of study and explore the notion of temporality that is particular to Buñuel's film. In Tristana, time becomes a perspective of the action in which the characters unfold, as Buñuel himself described this film as a movie about the decadence that old age imposes on the individual (Aranda 262). I shall argue that this decadence has two complementary dimensions in the film. First, it is a chronological process that implies physical decay, but it also appears as a force that otherwise modifies the individual. In this respect, age implies the acquisition of a body of knowledge that becomes an active force, for it is used by the subject to avoid the risks that would be taken by the inexperienced. Experience is thus different from chronology, and the effects of each are different as well. Contrary to what happens with physical decrepitude, experience in Tristana is a cause of spiritual depletion. These two complementary forces combine together in Buñuel's notion of decadence, and I shall study them by focusing on the seigneurial male protagonist, Don Lope. He embodies the two identities that dominate the film. On one hand, there is the aging but still seductive Don Juan, that Buñuel found in the Spanish literary tradition via Galdós and Zorrilla; on the other, the decrepit William Tell, a Freudian motif Dalí developed in his paintings of the thirties that Buñuel will recreate in his movie.

Buñuel points out in his memoirs that some of the ideas exposed by Don Lope in the movie (namely his initial scorn for bourgeois values such as work and property) originate in the revolutionary ideas of Surrealism. I would suggest that Tristana could be understood in terms of a critique of the Surrealist project and of its historical failure. Buñuel's understanding of Surrealism approaches Adorno's conception of the avant-garde as an advanced expression of bourgeois art. But he also perceived the movement in terms of action and as a process of discovery, fully aware of the possibilities it had for the generation of a new ideal. In a 1954 interview published in Cahiers du Cinema, Buñuel declares that Surrealism was for him "a discipline to be followed," adding that he considered the experience of this movement the greatest lesson of his life (in Grossvogel 52). Similar remarks abound in his memoirs where he speaks of his experience among the Surrealists as a personal contribution to a group committed to transforming reality and life. Conceived not so much as the description of the impossible, but rather as the evocation of the possible supplemented by dream and desire (Alexandrian 9), Surrealism was a new and radical form of existence and, in this sense, it was a completely revolutionary project.

However, as a revolutionary project, Surrealism failed, and this alternative lesson is contained in Tristana. For just as Don Lope abandons his initial beliefs and evolves into a more conservative stance, the artists that promoted the Surrealist revolution failed historically in their radical attempts and succeeded only in producing an art that gained enormous commercial success but was merely an ornamental exercise (Buñuel, Sigh 123). As the initial dream faded the old Spanish Surrealist became aware of the erosion imposed by time which led to the defeat of the original revolutionary impulse. In this context, Buñuel recalls his last encounter in the sixties with an aging André Breton. Vigilant to maintain the purity of the original idea, he had just expelled Max Ernst from the Surrealist group. According to Breton, Max Ernst had "become nothing more than a money-hungry art dealer" as had happened earlier with Dalí (Sigh 114). Remembering the youthful spirit of provocation that initially helped launch the revival of...

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