Tess (1979, Roman Polanski)

There are many reasons to be suspicious of Roman Polanski’s decision to adapt Tess as his first project following his fleeing of the United States — not least being that he was escaping a rape conviction, having engaged in the sort of patriarchal behavior that’s bemoaned and mocked by Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Ubervilles, the story of which hits painfully close as the odyssey of an adolescent girl whose life is permanently altered and ruined by a man who takes advantage of her youth and naivete and impregnates her against her will. Hardy’s Tess is a martyr of sorts, and the film envisions her clearly as a heroine, as well it should, but there’s something extraordinarily creepy about such a tale being told, even straightforwardly (which this is), by Polanski. That feeling is deepened when you learn that the brilliant lead actress, then-teenaged Nastassja Kinski, became the director’s lover in the course of shooting.

But we can also sympathize with Tess as a Polanski project; it was recommended as such by his late wife Sharon Tate just prior to her massacre at the hands of Susan Atkins of the Manson family. Thus two inevitabilities: he approaches the film with a sense of obligation, and a permeating sense of oblique evil and dread surround it. That said, it’s a beautiful movie ably composed and delivered by a world-class filmmaker, but also a filmmaker whose work not so long prior to this was marked by a kind of gusto and riskiness that’s absent here. It’s nearly a textbook instance of a mannered literary adaptation that adds little to the work in question, being much more a staid illustration of the novel than a lively retelling of it. It’s nice that Polanski is competent at so many things, and he and a pair of fine cinematographers (Geoffrey Unsworth, who died during production, and Ghislain Cloquet) craft an achingly dreamlike, ghostly England out of nothing — going so far as to recreate Stonehenge in France — but there’s little to distinguish the film emotionally from a carefully distant Masterpiece Theatre production.

That said, Hardy’s novel was popular because it’s a cracking good time, and so is this. Most of it is the soap-opera elegance of his narrative and his creation of a wily heroine whose refusal of victimhood is inspiring, but Polanski does add a bit of zest to the proceedings. Beyond the gorgeous photography and direction, there is the excellent performance by Kinski, which seems to draw from a pool of unimaginable wisdom. As her resignation overtakes her through the course of the sad life we watch being enacted by a simple act of hate and control, it’s all captured in her face magnificently well — her approach to these emotions is so pure, yet deep and complex.

She’s backed up in kind by an excellent roster of supporting players, all of whom enact their roles from the novel quite vividly, with Peter Firth alternately heartfelt and hateful as the love of Tess’ life, Leigh Lawson appropriately silent-movie villainous as her captor, assaulter, and eventually victim Alec, and plenty of oddball faces and voices filling out minor roles — John Collin as Tess’ drunken father, Fred Bryant as a kind dairy farmer, and most unforgettably, Sylvia, the blind and burdensome mother of Alec, brought to unstoppable life by beady-eyed Sylvia Coleridge. She has but one scene in the picture, but it’s so striking as to eclipse the remainder of the three hours.

Which isn’t to say that those three hours don’t remain visually striking and enormously entertaining. Indeed, Polanski’s advantage is that Hardy’s story is absorbing, economical, and beautifully told, with plenty of opportunities for both subtle and powerhouse performances, and very much to see and hear. But only occasionally does it seem as if Polanski has anything of a personal nature to interject beyond the sheer act of making the film. There is, of course, one of the subtlest murder scenes in history (signaled by droplets of blood on a ceiling), the sweeping and almost Biblical climax at Stonehenge, the phantasmagorically lit early outdoor dance scenes, and the general feel and kick of epic storytelling. But where is the unbearable tension of Knife in the Water, the terror of Repulsion, the wit of The Fearless Vampire Killers, the unhidden despair of Chinatown, even the disorienting spark of Rosemary’s Baby? Perhaps there’s something else happening here, like the urge to escape oneself completely, to craft something wholly free of auteurist trappings. Polanski succeeds in shedding his own stylistic trademarks and creating a film that seems almost independent of him, but the result is unlikely to retain much relevance outside of high school English classes.

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