[Within] the confines of [Tristana's] rather melodramatic if morally resonant plot, which always borders on the perverse, as do all of the director's films, Buñuel has managed to interweave meanings that go far beyond the Electra theme. Throughout the film, Buñuel comments on the psychological effects of social dependance. (p. 52)
Buñuel's psychology is impeccable. Her mind a tabula rasa, it is logical that Tristana would become whatever her surroundings provide, that her psychic impulses would be directed by the will of her domineering guardian. (pp. 52-3)
Sexually, Tristana, after her initiation by Don Lope, becomes the sister of Belle de Jour…. Like Belle de Jour, Tristana is a woman whose sexuality has been perverted by a fear of seduction, by an older, forbidding father figure, and who can now respond only to the brutal and the perverse. (p. 53)
It is, of course, perfect justice that Don Lope should fall victim at the end to his own perversion. Tristana responds in the manner he has taught her. "The kinder he is," she says, "the less I love him." She expresses the psychological damage done to women in her culture—the same damage expressed by Belle de Jour, who could be awakened sexually only in a brothel.
Tristana reflects as well Buñuel's preoccupation with the decay of Spain. He explores its obsession with an old order, represented by Don Lope and his cronies who meet every day in a café filled with indolent former aristocrats. It is a world defined by norms and relationships which have outlived their time and have now become dangerous…. It conveys the image of a Spain that is already amputated. The crippled Tristana represents in her person the generation to be maimed by the Civil War, embodying as she does the frequent image in Franco's Spain of the amputee. (pp. 53-4)
Don Lope stands … for the impotence and historical amnesia of Spain…. And Don Lope's impotence is far from innocent. Hypocrisy defines his very sensibility. It is expressed in his self-conscious and superficial rejection of religion as well as in the ridiculousness of his code of honor which decrees that he live by all the ten commandments except those having to do with sex, by which he means seduction….
His morality is thus expressed in limbo, devoid of any real content. It is couched in terms that will not touch upon his life: a duel, a harmless denunciation of priests, the contempt for the degradation of work by a man who is kept all his life by a private income, the rejection of marriage by a man who savors sex more with a mistress, particularly if she is innocent and thirty years younger than he. It is the almost psychotic sense of honor of the hidalgo who would rather starve to death than work, although he must sell everything he owns. In Don Lope's case it is the honor of a man who has debauched a girl destined to live with him as his daughter. (p. 54)
The circular structure of the imagery, the rapid repetition of the images of Tristana's life until we return to the first sequence of the film, reflects the hopelessness Buñuel feels, both toward Spain and toward its victims. Buñuel has relentlessly and brilliantly exposed the destruction of the individual by a corrupt, hypocritical moral code which makes no pretense of improving a society in which class animosities are deepening and brutality is growing. (p. 55)
Joan Mellen, "Reviews: 'Tristana'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1970 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1970–71, pp. 52-5.