Roman Polanski revealed an exceptional eye for gripping visual design in his earliest films. In those works, like Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and, somewhat later, The Tenant, most of this pictorial construction was derivative of themes, and subsequent depictions of, confinement, claustrophobic paranoia, and severely taut antagonism. In terms of visual and narrative scope, Chinatown opened things up somewhat, but it was with Tess, his 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” that Polanski significantly broadened his canvas to encompass the sweeping tale of the Victorian era loves and conflicts of this eponymous peasant girl.
Polanski speaks to this distinction during an interview in the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD of Tess. In discussing the film for the French TV program Cine regards, the director acknowledges that many of his prior films, and indeed modern life itself, tended toward the absurd and surreal. With this film, he hoped to venture into a world for those, apparently like himself, who wished, “to return to things that are more realistic, more essential, more human … like love, loyalty, betrayal, shame, the intolerance and cruelty of society.” In terms of Tess’ style, Polanski was also striving to visually extricate himself from restrained settings and condensed situations. With Tess, he wanted the camera to remain outside, objective, as opposed to the subjective camera positioning of Chinatown for example, where he says much of what we see is influenced by the inclinations and movements of Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes character. Tess would stay back, in most cases, holding to carefully composed tableaux of detached yet nonetheless powerfully evocative beauty.
The imagery of Tess is what strikes first and leaves the greatest impression, and it was undoubtedly with this in mind that Criterion pulled out all the stops with this release. The 4K digital restoration, done under Polanski’s supervision, is spectacular. While Polanski admits that he always admired films set indoors, hence the abundance of interior settings in the aforementioned early features, Tess is at its sumptuous best when outside. From the dusk-tinged luminosity highlighting the first half of the picture, to the bucolic mud and muck that emotionally inflects the latter half, Tess gloriously illustrates the ethereal impact of its pastoral setting. The delicate play of light in the beginning and, by contrast, the stark absence of any sense of warmth that dampens the concluding scenes, are both fully realized and gloriously presented. In some ways like a Terrence Malick picture, it’s easy with Tess to disengage from the plot and characters, getting swept up instead by the breathtaking visuals. This takes nothing away from the film (Polanski’s or Malick’s); fortunately, the pacing is leisurely enough that to simply watch for a while never once leaves the audience scrambling to catch up. In fact, some specific shots in Tess seem explicitly designed for their beauty rather than their narrative significance. It’s little wonder that Tess received Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (shared by its two DPs, Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, the former posthumously) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Pierre Guffroy, Jack Stephens), as well as Best Costume Design (Anthony Powell).
Criterion also went above and beyond with its supplemental features. This is particularly beneficial for a film like this, which, despite numerous accolades upon its release, including the Oscar wins (there were also three other nominations: Best Picture, Director, and Original Score), it is nevertheless among Polanski’s least discussed works. Perhaps this is because it deviated from what one thinks of as a “typical” Polanski film. Or perhaps it is because so much of its production was overshadowed by Polanski’s personal troubles at the time (despite being set in England, filming had to done in France, where he wouldn’t face extradition to America). Whatever the case, this Criterion release is a welcome one. Interviews with on-set footage and documentaries about the production give considerable insight about the movie and those involved. With so many extras, some of the material gets a little repetitive, but it’s nevertheless highly enlightening. We are able to see Polanski at work, setting up these astonishing shots. The behind-the-scenes material goes a long way to convey the difficulties of this type of filmmaking; Polanski is often shown to be meticulous in his directorial choices and is understandably impatient with talking and laughing onlookers.
Polanski dedicated Tess to his late wife Sharon Tate, who, while pregnant, was brutally murdered by members of the Manson family 10 years prior. It was Tate who first gave her husband Hardy’s novel. Adapted by Polanski and frequent collaborators Gérard Brach and John Brownjohn, Tess follows the source rather faithfully, with the radiant 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski starring in the title role. In an episode of The South Bank Show included here, Polanski says Kinski simply had a “face for the movies,” and he recognized that, when photographing her, she had “no bad sides.” In the Cine regards segment, he also likens her to a young Audrey Hepburn or Vivien Leigh: “When men see her on screen, they want to protect her. It’s an essential quality for a woman on the screen.”
The film begins as John Durbeyfield (John Collin) first hears that his family is supposedly descended from the prestigious d’Urberville aristocracy. He becomes infatuated with the notion and sets off his oldest daughter, Tess, to seek employment and residence at the nearest household where a remaining d’Urberville is thought to live. With a little luck, she will reclaim their rightful lineage and the Durbeyfields will attain their proper social status. There, she meets her possible cousin, Alec (Leigh Lawson), who appears instantly devious. Tess is bewildered by the whole arrangement and rather leery of her newfound heritage and relative, while her family, particularly her father, remains oblivious to the suspicious nature of the situation. Tess’ misgivings prove to be well-founded when it’s revealed that Alec only “bought” the d’Urberville name and is, indeed, a morally reprehensible scoundrel. He takes advantage of Tess’ fragility and rapes her. Following the violation (but not immediately), she leaves Alec and sets off on her own.
In these initial sequences, Polanski’s previously seen penchant for conveying an undercurrent of lurking danger is more apparent than anywhere else in the film. Clearly sensing that Alec is not who he claims to be, the potential for sexual violence is intense; his gaze is often chilling and the camera lingers on he and Tess just long enough to stress an unspoken, latent threat. This is especially disconcerting in the way that it contrasts with the lushness of the settings. For the first part of the film, the dazzling scenery remains a constant, acting as a complement and counterpoint to the drama that unfolds. When Tess’ life is going well and romance later blooms, the natural beauty that surrounds her ecstatically reflects her emotions. However, in these times of peril and abuse, the background doesn’t change; it ironically envelops scenes of dread in the same natural warmth.
Tess, to start, was a good-natured young girl, innocent and naïve. But it doesn’t take long for her to become soured by life’s injustices and disappointments. It’s revealed that she became pregnant from the altercation(s?) with Alec, and her emotional state is further battered when she loses the sickly child. Tess moves to a dairy farm and there meets Angel Clare (Peter Firth), the dashing apple of every young girl’s eye. In direct opposition to the first impression from Alec, Angel is charming and decent, and he and Tess share a physical and spiritual bond. They discuss their inward fears and mutually recognize that “life’s a puzzle,” neither one necessarily meeting the expectations thrust upon them by others. One of the film’s most delightfully romantic scenes comes in this portion of the picture, when Angel carries three other girls over a large puddle only so he could eventually hold Tess. “I’ve gone through three quarters of this trouble for your sake alone,” he tells her as he sweeps her into his arms.
Angel and Tess fall instantly and joyously in love and soon wed, but her scandalous past, however blameless for it she may have been, plagues their relationship. Angel is unforgiving and dismisses her (despite his own illicit dalliances prior to their marriage). Tess now takes a darker tone, and likewise shifts to a more somber color palette further underscored by a seasonal change of cold, rain, and grey skies. Tess reencounters Alec, but now, with her family in dire financial straits, the prospect of being with him has some disconcerting appeal. And when Angel again enters the picture and expresses his regret at having scorned Tess, she is subsequently torn between her true love and a love of necessity, neither of which has treated her well. Proud and resilient, Tess remains a headstrong girl, for better or worse, and by the end, her passionately enacted decisions have grave consequences for all involved.
“[Polanski] begins his projects by assembling his materials, including a perfectly crafted script … and then trains on them an eye that knows better than that of any other filmmaker how to frame a scene,” states Colin MacCabe in a predictably incisive essay included with the Criterion disc. This essentially is what makes Tess, as well as most of Polanski’s work, so great, this ability to have a discernable style that is illustrative and engrossing, and yet to have it, first and foremost, at the service of a well-told story. With Tess, there is unquestionably this balance. It is a stunning film to behold and it is a tale that has emotionally captivated readers since its 1891 publication.
— Jeremy Carr