Thomas Hardy’s tragic 19th century novel adapted as a luscious period film by Roman Polanski is a unique notch on his filmography rarely discussed or acknowledged. Made in 1979 after his escape to France, the film beautifully rounds out Polanski’s long and successful career as it remains one of the three pictures of his nominated for best picture and best director (along with Chinatown and The Pianist).
Tess (1979) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Natassja Kinski, Peter Firth
By Alan Bacchus
We can’t help compare Tess to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, another great filmmaker known for dark, bold subject matter entering in a traditionally formal, reserved and ‘classy’ genre. But born filmmakers like Polanski, the genre fits him, as Kubrick, like an old glove.
The narrative features a sadistically tragic arc, the story of a lower class British lass, Tess (Kinski) who is betrothed into upper class society only to find a world of grotesque chauvinism and seedy male predators. It’s an innocuous start to poor Tess’ journey. Her father walking down a road stopped by a gentleman on horseback who tells him that his family has been discovered to be distantly related to an upper class family called the d’Urbervilles. Seeing this as a golden ticket for his family, Tess, the loveliest of his daughters is sent off to connect with another d’Urbervilles family and enter society.
For her parents it’s a feeble and blind grasp at nobility, and for Tess a frightening experience to be sent off into the company of complete strangers. The first man she meets she claims as a ‘cousin’, Alec, but he turns out to be a fraud who purchased the name, like Tess’s father in hopes achieving nobility. And Tess also has the misfortune of being strikingly beautiful and when in the company of a heartless beast such as Alec we know her encounter will not turn out well. Indeed his aggressive courtship turns into rape, then a bastard child and soon utter heartbreak for Tess. The child dies, leaving Tess’s only other option to run and hide and seek employment elsewhere.
The next chapter in her life finds Tess working on a diary farm along with a coterie likeminded peers. The local hunk Angel Clare (Firth) seems to tickle all the girls fancy, but it’s Tess who wins the prize. It’s romantic bliss for the pair until Tess tragic past with Alec comes to bear.
At every turn Tess’s journey for emotional and social freedom is interrupted by the control and dominance of a man. Thus the theme which emerges so strongly from Tess’ arc of despair is her conviction not to be victimized. Tess greatest triumph comes midway in the third hour, after Angel shamefully rejects Tess, she encounters Alec again who offers her safety and financial comfort if he becomes his mistress. In spite of her poverty she rejects him, same with the return of Angel, who tries to win her back. Again, she rejects him too. Unfortunately when we expect Tess’s ownership of her own fate to elevate the picture into something triumphant, Tess fate pushes her to accept Alec’s offer.
It’s in the film’s final moments where Polanski seems to have missed an opportunity to give us levity. As I presume it follows in the Hardy novel Tess’ action for revenge seals hers fate. She loses her composure, her sanity and becomes utterly victimized. Such is life, but darnit if I didn’t want Tess to succeed, and Polanski never gives us this full satisfaction. But should we even expect anything less than the man who walloped us with both the Devil’s victory at the end of Rosemary’s Baby and Jake Gittes’ defeat in the final moments of Chinatown?
As expected Polanski’s visual design of the picture is stunning. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography as usual is spectacular. Perfect Polanski composition is matched by Unsworth’s gorgeous bath of magic hour light, and sweeping widescreen vistas - another example which further supports an observation of mine of the period between 1976 and 1982 as being a golden era in cinematography (including such other masterworks of photography as Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now, The Shining, Reds, Bound for Glory, and Alien).
Tess is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection