The time has come to acknowledge Roman Polanski as a true cinematic genius – period! For too long now this visionary film maker’s reputation has lingered under a cloud of suspicion; his name synonymous with - not one, but - two very heinous crimes; one perversely perpetuated upon Polanski’s actress/wife, Sharon Tate and their unborn child, the other, allegedly, the rape of a fourteen year old girl in 1977 when Polanski was forty-three. Despite the many permutations to this latter story (the victim chronically altering her understanding of events; a probationary court’s findings that “the victim was not only physically mature, but willing”; the revelation, L.A.D.A, David Wells lied to ‘butter up the story’ and make himself ‘look better’; the unearthed corruption of presiding Judge Rittenband that ought to have led to an outright dismissal of the charges, and finally, the court’s 2009 consideration of Polanski’s attorneys’ writ of mandate - usually summarily dismissed) Polanski’s name bears the scarlet letter of a known pedophile and rapist living in exile.
Remarkably, while Polanski’s personal reputation has suffered irrevocable damage, the status of his movies has only grown in prominence. This, of course, is as it should be; for Polanski has proven time and again (as though further proof were needed) he is a filmmaker par excellence, capable of exploring and excelling in virtually any genre. It behooves the reader to reconsider the merit of just two of Polanski’s most enduring creations, to ask ‘Is not Chinatown (1974) the greatest noir detective story ever conceived in color? Is Rosemary’s Baby (1968) the most psychologically complex and intellectualized horror movie of all time?’
Polanski’s most prolific period encompasses the mid-sixties to early 1980’s. In hindsight, however, his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's brooding 1891 novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles – foreshortened to Tess (1979) for the movie – evokes something of the wounded sentiment and martyred anguish of this man behind the camera, almost as much as it extols the tumult and destruction of Hardy’s victimized heroine (played with noteworthy composure and clairvoyance by eighteen year old Nastassja Kinski). Tess has been interpreted as everything from a highly romanticized apology made by Polanski to his own victim, to a tribute for Sharon Tate, who first brought Hardy’s masterpiece to her husband’s attention as a possible vehicle for her to star in, and, to whom Tess’ bittersweet dedication in the opening credits belongs. Indeed, the rape in Hardy’s novel – left mysterious and open to interpretation – is handled with uncharacteristic ‘acquiescence’ in the movie; Tess’ brief refusal, and struggling with Alec, yielding to momentary bouts of confusion afterward, but then, an even queerer sense of contentment.
Like the martial liberty Rhett Butler takes of Scarlett O’Hara in Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939), our Tess emerges from her ordeal with a half-amused smile, a bitter understanding of this world of men and her place within it, and, a repentant (even, grateful) suitor at her side; the definition of mutual consent crossed by Polanski’s alter-ego, Alec Stokes-d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), whose social standing fares considerably better than Polanski’s own did under similar indiscretions. Polanski is genuinely empathetic toward Alec in the movie; Alec’s repeated attempts to lavish Tess with gifts of money, and, eventually making her his mistress.
In the novel, Alec’s motives are purely predatory; seeking to possess Tess outright (remember, married women were then considered property – not their own person). But Polanski makes something more of Alec’s motivations, his earthly desire counterbalanced by a somewhat more nagging need to look after this girl he has wronged; perhaps as mere recompense meant to ease this guilt or responsibilities increasingly felt towards her. Even after she repeatedly spurns him, as she herself is rejected in turn by the man who presumably cannot exist without her, Angel Clare (Peter Finch), there is something genuinely compelling about Alec’s insistence; an intervention from the squalor and filth of Tess’ present circumstances. Quite simply, Polanski is not ready to give up Hardy’s affluent assailant as the movie’s generically sneering villain.
Conversely, Polanski’s portrait of Angel Clare becomes increasingly more unsympathetic; a man who professed to adore our heroine unconditionally (though not really) on the misunderstanding she is chaste. Yet, the revelation that Tess has had a ‘lover’ prior to their relationship reveals Angel’s truer heart. Polanski is very critical of this virtuous man – the son of a reverend, his mind cluttered with disappointment, anger, disgust and ultimately pity for the wife he has abandoned, but then comes to reclaim. In many ways, it is Angel – not Alec – who ruins whatever joy Tess might have had in this world; his return to her causing Tess to make a terrible decision; one ultimately leading to abject misery for both she and Angel.
Polanski’s Tess is an exquisite adaptation of Hardy’s novel; imbued with the selfsame subtext about a declining agrarian class forced to submit to a burgeoning era of modernity and progress. The movie’s secondary characters are constrained by Victorian slum prudery that none of the principals in Hardy’s novel – or the movie, for that matter – subscribe to, or even submit. But the movie’s plat du jour remains its exorcising of the novel’s subversive ideas about human sexuality; something Hardy might have wanted to express but was unable to due to the conventions (nee, social/moral constraints) of his time. Hardy did, in fact, abhor the narrow-mindedness of his own generation. Nevertheless, he fought the established mores in his own creative way to express what his publishers feared.
Thomas Hardy’s heroines are tragic portraits of self-destructing femininity, bound by chastity (which, after all, is tantamount to saintliness), yet trapped by lust, considered the devilry to send them to the gallows. Tess is no different; besieged by unwanted desire from two ill-advised suitors; one of privilege, the other unable to fully detach his heart from its pedigree in high-minded morality. Hardy’s compassion is all with the latter. Tess is merely the implement to be martyred as she is wounded by these men of diverging caste, who nevertheless converge upon her advantageous youth and beauty: distant ‘cousin’ Alec, who is, in fact, no relation at all, having bought the once prominent d’Urberville name to enrich his own family’s fortunes, and Angel Clare; the son of a respectable clergyman (David Markham) who chooses to become a farmer and marry the girl to whom his heart so obviously belongs. The irony, of course, is that Tess is judged unworthy by Angel after he discovers her scandalous history. Despite the fact he has had mistress, Tess’s own confession - having spent her formative years adorning Alec’s bedchamber - ultimately poisons the passion Tess and Angel would have shared on their wedding night. It all but destroys the totality of whatever happiness life once had in store for them.
Polanski first conceived of the project in French with longtime collaborator, Gérard Brach; their script later translated and expanded by John Brownjohn. The movie is remarkably faithful to Hardy’s novel, with Polanski arguably making ‘improvements’ only to take advantage of the more liberal artistic freedoms Hardy could never have imagined, much less hoped for in his own time. As example; in the novel Alec’s rape of Tess occurs while the girl is asleep. Even the long awaited consummation of Tess and Angel’s marriage is witnessed only through a keyhole by an inquisitive cleaning lady. Such were the necessary excisions made by publishers for Hardy to get the rest of his masterpiece printed.
Polanski, however, is working under no such constraints; though perhaps even more incredibly, he refrains almost entirely from indulging in his own generation’s laissez faire acceptance of gratuitous sex, violence and nudity, popularized in movies throughout the 1970’s. Instead, Polanski explores the novel’s seductions with an analogous viewpoint; rape and legitimate lovemaking becoming two halves of the same equation. And which is more destructive to Polanski’s Tess; the man who would take by force what he wants from this inexperienced waif, or the other, who willingly offers himself to her, but then just as easily take it all away as punishment, and, to satisfy his own vanity and ego? Polanski asks, but never entirely answers this question, though we, as the audience, come to suspect he has ever so slightly veered on the side of the unromantic conqueror - not the quixotic idealist.
It is precisely this impartiality that makes Polanski’s Tess quite daring; the viewer caught unawares by his/her compassion for the prurient behaviorist, and, contrariwise, putt off by how stifling and unnatural the forthright lover suddenly appears; hypocritical even, as Angel cannot forgive Tess the same indiscretion she so uncomplicatedly chooses to excuse in him. It’s a fascinating read on Hardy’s characters, further fleshed out by Anthony Powell’s sumptuous costuming to cleverly mirror the spiraling emotional state of our impressionable heroine.
When first we see Tess, she is the quintessence of virginity, bedecked in button-downed white from head to foot, and utterly dazzling in her laurel of white flowers braided into her hair. Gradually, the colors in Tess’s garments begin to turn, first to pale blue (for the rape), then later drab grays and deep unattractive browns to compliment her souring mood immediately after leaving Alec. Tess reverts to the purity of white just prior to her second ‘cute meet’ with Angel; Polanski using wardrobe again to punctuate this new beginning, or perhaps merely to foreshadow his motif of doomed passion destined to repeat its mistakes. Once more, Tess’ wardrobe goes from white, to pale blue to dark burgundies, browns and grays; all three colors on display for the penultimate bittersweet reunion between Angel and Tess at the home she now shares with Alec.
Herein, the effect is uncannily reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman’s devolving sanity in the 1944 classic, Gaslight (1944); Kinski unsettlingly like Bergman in her Victorian negligée as she descends the stairs to confront her former husband; her wild, troubled eyes yearning for his acceptance; her mind reeling in chaos over how best to conjure a return to this man who has considerably wronged her, but who she so obviously prefers to the other convenience currently occupying her bed. The parallels between Bergman’s Paula Alquist in the aforementioned Gaslight and Tess go even further; Paula’s tortuous manipulations at the hands of her husband, pushing her to the brink of self-destruction by taking the next obvious step to murder as revenge. Inevitably, Bergman’s character suffers a moment of clarity. She does not plunge the knife into her wicked husband, and her decision pulls her back from the brink of a similar trap our Tess cannot help but fall into; thus, she is made to submit to the penalty of death for her actions.
And Polanski hyphenates Tess’ corruptibility at the hands of the ironically named ‘Angel’ by having Powell sheath her from top to bottom in magnificent scarlet for the movie’s last act; a befitting hue to parallel the blood murderously spilled in the upstairs bedroom. For now our Tess is truly the fallen woman; the choice to do evil by her own hand, and believe she can escape its consequences, informing the audience of a very tragic and brief future together; Polanski forcing us to bid a reluctant farewell to this peasant girl who has, for the better half of 171 minutes, occupied our hearts as a desirable innocent, then chivalrous sufferer to whom we could relate.
Yet, this creature is gone; evaporated once the unholy deed is committed. The Tess of our own aspirations - to see her succeed - has died; replaced by visions of a femme fatale we cannot understand, or perhaps refuse to accept as having any shred of moral decency. She’s done the wrong thing – if, for the right reason – and we strangely find ourselves looking forward to her inevitable demise; Polanski, perhaps plying our own intuitively Victorian slum prudery with a viable outlet into which it can rather unapologetically be expressed and, ultimately satisfied.
Our story begins in real Thomas Hardy country: Wessex during the Victorian age. Tess and the other eligible maidens are having their May dance in the countryside at sunset, the vision of a large gathering of women dressed in virginal white, stirring young Angel Clare, a passing farmer, to join their occasion for a spirited jig and reel. Along a similar country road, Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield (John Collin) encounters clergyman, Parson Tringham (Tony Church) who refers to him rather glibly as ‘Sir John’. Durbeyfield, a hopeless drunk, is not above making his own inquiries, discovering from Tringham that he is a direct descendent of the d’Urbervilles; a once noble lineage dating all the way back to William the Conqueror, though now all but turned to dust.
Durbeyfield becomes fixated upon regaining this lost nobility. To this end, he quickly discovers a wealthy family living on an estate not far away and bearing the d’Urberville family name. Sir John forces his eldest daughter, Tess to seek employment there. Almost immediately, Alec d’Urberville is amused, then enraptured by his beautiful young cousin. But his attempts at seduction, plying Tess with wild strawberries and roses, do not meet with her approval. She is a good girl, and will not be swayed. Alec confesses to Tess that his family is of no relation. He has bought the d’Urberville name, intent on exploiting its heritage to benefit his own. As the days pass, Alec becomes consumed by Tess’ beauty until finally, frustrated and angry at her lack of interest in him he takes advantage of her in the forest.
Humiliated and with child, Tess returns home, giving birth to a sickly baby that later dies. Sometime later, Tess is employed at a dairy as a milkmaid where she meets her heart’s true ideal; Angel Clare. He rescues Tess and her friends from ruining their Sunday best on their way to church, carrying each girl over a deep puddle obscuring their path on the narrow wood-lined country road. One of the girls, Izz (Suzanna Hamilton) is desperately in love with Angel, though quite incapable of expressing her unrequited feelings to him. Instead, she watches with increasing sadness as Angel and Tess grow closer.
Angel comes from a respectable family. What’s more, he believes Tess is an unspoiled country lass; completely naïve in the ways of the world. The two fall in love, and despite his own father’s objections, are later married. Previously, Tess had tried to write Angel a letter, explaining her affair with Alec. The letter, however, remains unread by Angel and Tess later destroys it, intent on keeping her past a secret from her husband. However, on their wedding night, Angel quietly confesses to his wife that he had a previous relationship before they ever met. Believing this confession alone will make Angel more sympathetic to her own plight, Tess confides in Angel about Alec. Instead, Angel rejects Tess for her honesty, his romantic ideals about her totally shattered.
After several days, Angel vows that they should go their separate ways. The love that was to have been everlasting between them is now dead. In his desolate departure from the country estate he has rented for their honeymoon, Angel discovers Izz to whom he discloses his broken heart. In turn, she reveals her true feelings for him. But Angel stops just short of asking Izz to take Tess’ place, riding off into the distance alone, presumably to forget Tess forever. This, however, he cannot do. Nor can Tess excuse or forgive Angel his abandonment, particularly after her family is forced into poverty by Sir John’s untimely passing from strong drink.
Tess attempts to keep her family together by finding backbreaking work in the fields. Alec attempts to reason with her, offering them financial aid but at a price. Tess initially rebukes the offer, but in order to spare her family certain death from starvation, she reluctantly re-enters into an arrangement with this man who raped her, becoming his mistress to support her mother and siblings. Not long afterward, Angel comes in search of his wife after a disastrous missionary tour abroad has considerably compromised his health. Discovering Tess as Alec’s kept woman leaves Angel brokenhearted and ashamed. But Tess, now determined to return to Angel, murders Alec by slitting his throat with his shaving blade; Polanski once again refraining from showing us anything more than Tess’ glance at the implement of death, followed by her hasty departure from the house after Angel, and finally a few prominent drops of blood seeping through the upstairs carpet and through the ceiling on the first floor.
Angel and Tess run away together, his acceptance of her past without passing moral judgment coming too late in their chance for happiness. Breaking into a seemingly abandoned manor house, Angel and Tess consummate their marriage. They are forced to flee when the tenants return; their trek across the moors to Stonehenge leading to Tess’ capture by the police on horseback. As Angel looks on, Tess is led away in chains, the movie’s epilogue reiterating that she was summarily tried, convicted and hanged for Alec’s murder.
Tess is a starkly beautiful movie of rare and exceptional qualities, long overdue for resurrection as an important work in the arc of Roman Polanski’s film career. At the time of its release, Tess was the most expensive movie ever produced in France; the latter, a necessary sacrifice in authenticity, because Britain would have extradited Polanski to the U.S. to be sentenced on his rape conviction. Nevertheless, the French countryside is a fairly convincing substitute for England, in part because Polanski has studied the great agrarian paintings of French artists, Georges de La Tour and Gustave Courbet, evoking their palette, lushness and textures into an evocative living tapestry for the film. Tess was a production marred by a tragedy; the unexpected death of cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth from a heart attack necessitating that his work be picked up by Ghislain Cloquet. Both men won the Oscar for Best Cinematography on Tess, though remarkably, the Academy chose to entirely overlook its star as Best Actress or Polanski as Best Director. The movie wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture.
Nastassja Kinski did win the Golden Globe for ‘Best New Star of the Year’, though again, and perhaps even more ironically, she was entirely overlooked in that award’s ‘Best Actress’ category as well. It must be said of Kinski that she remains the movie’s exquisite lynchpin. Arguably, without her, the story still would not have fallen apart, thanks to Polanski’s meticulous planning and superb casting choices made throughout this peerless production. But with Kinski as his star, Polanski’s Tess attains a level of movie magic practically unattainable and decidedly pure. When Kinksi darts those dark and piercing, expressive eyes, volumes of subtext from Hardy’s novel come tumbling out; the transparency caught in her emotional responses unexpectedly catapulting this material into the stratosphere as cinema art of the highest order. Kinski’s Tess truly haunts us from within, making her hypnotic captivation of both Alec and Angel wholly believable.
The other performances in the movie are universally fine and wrought with an appreciation for Hardy’s own period and presence of mind. It’s as though the author is being channeled through these characterizations. And Polanski has been ever so meticulous in maintaining this fidelity to his source material without his devotion ever becoming stagey, slavish or uninspired by that necessary spark of ‘original genius’ for which all of Polanski’s best works are internationally acclaimed, appreciated and admired. Adaptations of great novels remain in vogue in the filmmakers’ milieu. But Tess is the truest of rarities among them; conducting itself on its own visual terms, yet timeless and faithful to Thomas Hardy’s 'of the earth' textures and that fateful narrative of pastoral tragedy.
Criterion Home Video’s Blu-ray delivers the goods. Tess has been sourced from a new 4K digital restoration. At first, I wasn’t entirely convinced. The opening credits appeared ever so slightly soft, contrast looking slightly off and/or boosted and fine detail seemingly lost under a patina of haze. The image just didn’t seem to snap together as it should. Perhaps the original optical printing process has something to do with this. For, almost immediately after the credits, a noticeable improvement occurs that perfectly realizes the luxurious visuals achieved by both Unsworth and Cloquet. A good portion of Tess is shot outdoors, under natural lighting conditions; both cinematographers creating an almost sepia-tint agrarian backdrop, dripping in honey-yellow/golden afternoons; richly saturated and positively glowing from the screen. On Blu-ray, Tess will undoubtedly impress as few movies of its generation can. The image is detailed and vibrant; the red in the strawberries Alec feeds Tess, as example, popping off the screen. Tess is not a film that exemplifies crisp, clean contrast. Unsworth and Cloquet’s soft lighting and deliberately hazy afterglow of late day sunlight have been perfectly preserved on this 1080p transfer; as have the more foreboding dark blues and lifeless grays as the mood of the piece turns darker and unromantic.
The 5.1 DTS audio is another cause for celebration; subtly nuanced and exactly right. Extras are the icing on the cake. We get a superb 2006 documentary ‘Once Upon A Time’ on the making of the film with rare interviews from Polanski, Kinski and other contributors. Criterion also affords us three separate vintage programs that covered the movie’s production, again featuring cast and crew giving in-depth coverage about the making of the movie that puts most of today’s junket featurettes attempting to do the same to absolute shame. Add to this a 1979 interview with Polanski (in French with subtitles), another 45 min. documentary shot on location while the movie was being made, a fascinating booklet essay by Colin MacCabe, the movie’s original trailer and voila! – this is a Tess for the ages: a magnificent offering from Criterion that belongs on everyone’s top shelf of must haves! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)