Tristana in the Age of #MeToo

Tristana, a film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel, is a story about how one young woman deals with living in a male-dominated environment, the horrors she has to endure, the steps she takes to survive, and the mistakes she makes.

Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman who is taken in by the middle-aged Don Lope (Fernando Rey), after her mother dies. An innocent, she’s pestered by boys and men with one thing on their mind, to dominate her, both her spirit and her sexuality.

Lope fancies himself a free spirit, eschewing marriage because, as he says “passion must be free.” He doesn’t work, instead preferring his freedom to chat with friends at the local cafe and take daily naps. He’s also an atheist (like Buñuel) and views the priests and others who serve a god as fools.

Lope takes Tristana in as her guardian, but almost immediately begins pursuing her as a lover.

“Give me a kiss,” he tells her. So she gives him a kiss like a daughter might give to a father. “No, not like that,” he tells her.

She finds this amusing and laughs, but then relents, not realizing that this is just the beginning.

Lope makes a great deal out of sexual freedom and tries to impress upon her that he’s not like other men, who may want to possess her. No, he values, even cherishes, he says, her freedom.

“As I wish and as you wish,” he tells her. “I don’t want to impose my wishes. We’re happy because neither you nor I have lost our sense of freedom. Right now, you could tell me that you’re tired of me. You could leave and I’d say nothing.”

And she soon does tire and wants to leave.

“Everyday he gets more ridiculous if only I could get away and never see him again,” she says.

As the story moves on she meets Horacio (Franco Nero), an artist who paints her and eventually falls in love with her. As this affair develops, Tristana acknowledges that her relationship with Don Lope isn’t as one-sided as she had first thought.

Horacio: I want you to be my wife.
Tristana: I’ll live with you as long as you love me. If you ever get tired of me, we’ll each go our own way.
Horacio: You remind me of that scoundrel. You talk like him.
Tristana: The worst thing is he’s right about many things.

As the story continues we see Lope scheme more and more to get to her stay and then return once she leaves. How Tristana reacts, how Horatio behaves and the effect these actions have on Tristana is a fascinating look at the sexual politics taking place between men and women, both in the 1970s when the film was made, as well as now, in the middle of the #MeToo movement.

Like many men today, Don Lope is enamored by what he thinks are his progressive ways, but his behavior tells a different story. Eventually spurned by his ward turned lover for another, he finds himself operating in the same sexist role that he would chastise many other men for. Except perhaps he’s worse because he justifies his actions through the mask of denial.

How many high-profile men have we seen in the past year-and-a-half, men who we revered, even counted on as feminist allies, how many of them have we seen accused of behaving horrifically towards women, using their power to gain sexual favors from people who simply want to progress in their careers?  So far it’s more than 400 people, according to Time magazine, as of this writing.

Tristana, based on a 19th-century novel, reminds us that it’s not a new problem, but a very old one. How Don Lope falls, how Horatio acts, and how Tristana reacts as first the innocent and unsuspecting victim and later as someone who’s learned to manipulate men with their sinister desires is a telling tale that has as much to say today as it did when it came out in 1970.