Tess is an unfairly overlooked gem in the filmography of director Roman Polanski, either because its release was clouded by the infamous sexual assault scandal that defined the director in many peoples’ minds since the sensationalized story first broke nearly four decades ago or because people seem to think that supposedly staid, big budget historical adaptations just don’t fit within the radical purview of the worldly auteur.
I’d be fairly inclined to rest on the latter because this majestic and superficially old-fashioned film, which when you sit back and absorb it is a beautifully rendered pastoral work of art, is unlike much of Polanski’s work up until that point. But the truth of the matter ostensibly lies with the troubled former. I’m not going to cloud this review with Polanski’s personal life, but the two are inexorably linked to a certain degree. Yet taken on its own merits Tess is—despite the nominations and awards it garnered upon release—Polanski’s most unsung film, and one that Criterion has artfully brought back to be enjoyed and genuinely reevaluated.
The film, adapted by Polanski, Gerard Brach, and John Brownjohn from author Thomas Hardy’s classic 1891 novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” is about a young and beautiful peasant girl named Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) who finds out that she and her family may have an ancestral connection to a rich landowning family named the d’Urbervilles. When she is reluctantly sent to investigate the claim, she learns that the once illustrious family name holds no real meaning, as a nouveau riche mother and son named Alec (Leigh Lawson) have purchased the d’Urberville name and rights. But quickly, the snively Alec takes a liking to the impressionable and pure Tess, and sets up events that will cause her to abandon her family and take up with a well-to-do dairy farm apprentice from a respectable family named Angel Clare (Peter Firth) that may be her tragic true love. But Tess’ past may ultimately come back to haunt her.
All this talk of being completely unique in Polanki’s oeuvre is admittedly a bit off. Thematically, Tess can be summed up alongside Polanski’s other films that weave in and out of the subject of female sexual identity as well as the role of the oppressed and repressed. It’s the foundation of films like Repulsion, most definitely Rosemary’s Baby, and even pops up in Cul-de-sac and Knife in the Water. But whereas Mia Farrow or Catherine Deneuve seem to be in direct, outright confrontation with these themes, the antiquated form of Tess leaves those concerns to be muted in clever ways as to make a more rich and narratively inconspicuous film altogether. It’s not so much that those other films are somehow overly obvious, but rather that the subject matter delineated the punishing behavior put upon and present in the previous female leads, and perhaps Tess’ source material allowed Polanski to subdue those methods for something more appropriately novelistic.
Tess herself, much like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, is burdened by a history from which she is trying to escape, and yet she has no idea just what that history entails. In the film’s case, her lost personal history gives way to the larger societal norms of religion, pride, and most importantly her female sexuality. It’s so interesting to me that here the entire plot hinges on the potentially melodramatic concepts of maidenhood and chastity, and that these plot points with so much weight are taken for granted in the plots of the contemporary-set films of Polanski. For some it may just be an apparent contrast, but to me this sort of narrative experimentation or shift on Polanski’s part is what makes Tess so special.
Yet nowhere is this sense of being exceptional more evident than in the fascinating and startlingly confident lead actress, the then-newcomer Nastassja Kinski. Polanski’s casting of the German actress as an English peasant girl is potentially ill advised, and yet Kinski’s other-ness plays perfectly into Tess’ very misplaced identity. Kinski’s English accent wavers at first, betraying certain vocal sounds for her native accent, but her performance slowly wins you over in a mesmerizing sort of way. She is as inconspicuous as the narrative itself, and her reassuring poise is the absolute backbone of the film. Leigh Lawson’s performance as Alec is suitably nasty, especially considering the way Lawson plays the character as if Alec actually believes what he does to Tess and in his general demeanor to be well within his aristocratic rights.
But the film’s other stunning performance, besides Kinski, is Peter Firth’s Angel Clare. Aside from being inherently engaging because of the character’s unique urge to move between societal circles, Firth manages to make the flawed character its emotional core even when you can’t help but hate him. He and Kinski elevate the story past the mere classical setup of the love triangle. They play the parts with enough of a modern emphasis to make their plight matter to present-day audiences, but they never betray the importance of the source material and the way it maneuvers the resolute selfhood of each character.
For the set, Criterion has poured an exhausting amount of material into the mix, which isn’t strictly apparent at first. With many of the supplements clocking in at nearly an hour apiece, we get to enjoy the methods behind the majestic cinematography and impeccable production design all over again. But with so much material there, there is an inevitably frustrating amount of overlap. Points Polanski makes in the South Bank Show supplement are carried over again in the Cine Regards piece, and the three part making-of programs by Laurent Bouzereau —while utterly fascinating at times—reeks of the slick superficiality of much of his other work. However interesting it might be, I think costume designer Anthony Powell mentions the fact that he made Tess’ dress the color of dried blood at least five times. This sort of repetition mixed with the lengths of each supplement sort of brings them down a notch.
The most puzzling inclusion is the “Once Upon a Time…Tess” doc, which gives us the same type of talking head approach as the rest, but insists on staging the making of the film from a specifically historical background. At one time Roman Polanski will be onscreen talking about how difficult it was to shoot scenes in the Brittany countryside, and then it will abruptly cut away to a narrator talking about the political and social upheaval in France at the time.
And yet I wouldn’t really get rid of anything, mostly because of some of the absolutely wonderful anecdotes peppered throughout. My particular favorite is early on in the South Bank Show when Polanski is recounting the way he was first drawn to the cinema, and how his sister wouldn’t let him leave the movie theater as a little boy in Lodz so he was forced to urinate in his seat. It’s gross, but weirdly unforgettable.
Among the many great things that Criterion does is that they always do a great job of reminding you about movies that you may have missed. Tess, with its resolute performances, stately cinematography, flawless design, and assured direction, may not be Polanski’s most recognizable films, but it certainly may be his most accomplished. The film is dedicated to Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife who was tragically murdered, who allegedly gave the director the book to read the last time he saw her. If anything, the film stands as a wonderful personal dedication, but also an unjustly overlooked work by an often-misunderstood filmmaker.