Trishna is the opposite of a romance; it's a romantic horror story about what happens when the power dynamics of the larger world slip into the soft, naked, vulnerable place between lovers. It's based on Thomas Hardy's Victorian novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but adapted by director Michael Winterbottom to contemporary India, where Trishna (the stunningly gorgeous Freida Pinto), who comes from a poor family in traditional rural Rajasthan, meets wealthy scion Jay (Riz Ahmed, perfect playboy). Her submission to him is silent and total. His devotion to her is at first entirely devotional.
Several of the hinges of the plot are creaky and threaten to let the doors come off the whole thing—actions go unmotivated and unsupported, transformations are sudden. But the acting is tremendous, and the rich setting is the evocative and active third leg of their love triangle; the centuries-old palace where they both descend into brutality has painted on its walls the female bodies once owned by this palace's ruler, in a reminder of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Perkins Gilman both. The walls are crawling.
Trishna, like Tess, is about sex, gender, class, and rising urbanity/modernity. Jay (a savvy blending of two characters from Tess) moves Trishna to Mumbai, where their friends are Bollywood dancers and actors bankrolled by Jay. Things roll along beautifully, with a happy ending on the horizon, when Winterbottom reveals that this move to Mumbai was unidirectional: When Jay and Trishna are forced to move back to the puritanical countryside, they also have to hide their sexual relationship, and they choose the most convenient disguise—that she works for him. But transitioning from ostensible equals (in Mumbai) back to hierarchy undoes them, or reveals that they were never sewn together at all (this is not clear). Their sex plunges from tenderness to cruelty in a series of scenes that are titillating, frightening, mortifying. Trishna may not be perfect, but it is beautiful and outlandish, and they just don't make many movies like this anymore.