In the annals of feel-bad literature, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a corker, pitting natural beauty and goodness against a battery of opposing forces–the church, the aristocracy, modern technology, human avarice–and finding beauty debased. It was a loaded area of study for Roman Polanski, who adapted it as a Hollywood artist in exile, working in France rather than nearer the book’s setting of Wessex, England, for fear of his deportation to the U.S. on rape charges. Just as Polanski’s bloody Macbeth has been interpreted as a howl of pain following the murder of his beloved wife, Sharon Tate, his Tess can be read as an act of penance, if not a bid for rehabilitation.
Tess is dedicated to Tate. Polanski says it was she who originally gave him a copy of Hardy’s novel to read, though it’s easy to see the book’s appeal for him. Repulsion and especially Rosemary’s Baby were dark but compelling stories of women on a downhill slide, and Tess puts a woman’s breakdown under a microscope. But Hardy’s novel also qualifies as a nearly feminist work, at least by the standards of Victorian England. Hardy posits the existence of one Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski, here billed as “Nastassia”), a “pure woman” (it says so in the book’s subtitle) victimized in turn by greed, lust, jealousy, and the law. The plot is set in motion when her father (a crusty John Collin) learns that the Durbeyfields may actually be descended from the aristocratic d’Urberville clan and so sends Tess–an incongruously beautiful representative of his rather ordinary offspring–to claim kinship with an elderly but wealthy d’Urberville lady (Sylvia Coleridge, impressively creepy) living not far away. Tess doesn’t meet the ailing d’Urberville but is greeted instead by young Alec (Leigh Lawson), her son, who clearly fancies Tess. Though she resolutely rebuffs his advances, he contrives to keep her close, giving her work on the property, courting her aggressively, and eventually raping her. And then her troubles really begin.
Kinski’s Tess exudes a kind of resignation in the face of impossible demands. She is introduced in one of the opening scenes as Angel Clare (Peter Firth), handsome son of the local reverend, takes a moment to speak with the village girls, who are dancing alone in a May Day celebration as they wait for their partners to arrive. Tess is among the dancers, but you only notice her because, amid the hungry and admiring gazes of the other girls, she alone is regarding Angel with suspicion, as if trying to suss out his motives. You can’t blame Tess for turning glum as her story moves inexorably into tragedy, but there’s a practiced sadness in Kinski’s expressions from the start. It’s the look, I guess, of a teenager who’s figured out that she’s beautiful and that this beauty will transform her relations with men, who will always want something from her. To be honest, Kinski doesn’t do much with her face but alternate between a grim determination and an epic pout. In context, however, it’s enough. Mocked, shunned, and disowned by various parties, Tess perseveres in the face of tragedy and destitution, her fundamental selflessness serving her well in a succession of esteem-destroying scenarios that encompass various archetypes of womanhood: daughter, wife, mother, and mule. Tess is strong, the story goes. The world around her is weak, alas, and that weakness destroys her.
Polanski’s film runs nearly three hours in length and somehow manages to fit almost everything of consequence from the book into that span. The only glaring omission is an inciting incident of sorts in which the Durbeyfield family’s sole horse is killed when Tess falls asleep at the reins, giving her a degree of culpability in their poverty. Relieved of that debt, Polanski’s heroine shines all the more brightly as a beacon of purity–the better to show her status as victim of the hypocritical (by which I mean sexist) attitudes about women’s behaviour that dovetailed with religious attitudes in Victorian culture. By the end of the stretch that constitutes roughly the film’s first third, Tess is an unwed mother who has made two major decisions. The first is not to seek the help of the man who violated her. The second is to turn away from the church after the parson refuses to give a Christian burial to the sickly child upon its untimely demise. In an astonishingly sad and almost unbearably moving scene shot at twilight in classic Hollywood style, Tess rigs a small cross and sets down a little jar of daisies under cover of night, in a dark and deserted corner of the churchyard where she’s buried the boy herself. Phillipe Sarde’s accompanying score swells on the soundtrack, a basic four-note pattern repeating and developing until church bells begin clanging their sonorous approval.
At this point, Tess strikes out on her own and allows herself to take one last-ditch stab at happiness. Don’t put away those handkerchiefs, though–there’s degradation yet to come as Angel, the dancing fool from the first reel, first falls in love with her, then essentially disowns her (her suspicious gaze justified after all), leaving her again to her own devices. As she wanders the English countryside, impoverished, the moneyed Alec d’Urberville manages to track her down and begin his frustrated courtship anew. Meanwhile, Tess only wishes herself dead–perhaps to relive herself of the burden of her principles.
Hardy’s book has Tess losing agency in her own story as technology transforms her corner of England. As it turns out, Alec is the son of a businessman from the north who adopted the d’Urberville name to lend his freshly-built southern estate the whiff of noble history. After she escapes Alec’s embrace, Tess takes a job as a dairymaid, and Polanski’s versions of these scenes have the strongest sense of place of any in the film. A shot where the narrative stops dead to allow the camera to track alongside bags of cheese hanging and dripping, quietly, in the cellar, is justly famous. Tess’s relatively serene tenure among the cows contrasts sharply with her lot later on, when she works atop a noisy steam-powered threshing machine fuelled with hot coal. Hardy described the thresher as “a red tyrant that the women had come to serve,” and you can feel that distaste for the machine in Polanski’s blocking of the shot, the working women tiny in the background as the thresher itself dominates the middle of the frame. The glimpse of the engine’s red-hot firebox, along with the relentless chugging sound it makes, is like a vision of Hell itself in these otherwise bucolic locations. In that image, you feel the sweltering heat.
It’s just one detail among many that signals Hardy’s thematic concerns in aesthetic terms. There is Academy Award-winning costume design by Anthony Powell–who puts Alec and Angel at odds through their wardrobes (one a nouveau-riche industrialist decked out in smart modern patterns and bold lines, the other a spiritually-attuned nature boy clad in loose earth tones) and shows Kinski a great number of fetching ways to wear hats and scarves–and art direction by Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens, who impressively remade Hardy’s England in Brittany, the landscapes of which seem not so far from Wessex after all. The cinematography, too, was blessed by Oscar, though its history is troubled. The visuals undergo a subtle but meaningful procession from the gauzy impressionistic pastels of the early scenes to a cleaner appearance, and it’s downright startling how unadorned the picture looks once Angel Clare confronts Tess in a seaside boarding-house in the third act. At that point, Tess has become truly ordinary; it’s possible that Polanski considers that the greatest tragedy of all.
But I’m not sure how much of that progression is deliberate. Geoffrey Unsworth shot Tess for about three months of its eight-month production before dying of a heart attack on location, and not even the truly fine Ghislain Cloquet could entirely replicate his style. (Cloquet had worked with Marker, Resnais, Demy, and Bresson.) Unsworth was well-known for shooting with fog filters that diffused the light and gave scenes a dreamy look; the softest exteriors, especially early in the film, are generally assumed to be his work. I don’t mean to minimize Cloquet’s contribution–Tess is, from start to finish, probably the loveliest picture Polanski ever made. Yet when people think of the beauty of Tess, I suspect they are remembering mainly the hazy, iconic shots Unsworth contributed before his death, as opposed to the similarly painterly but more naturalistic work of Cloquet. Altogether it makes for a quite impressive picture, of a piece with other gorgeous, landscape-oriented dramas of the 1970s such as Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven.
Still, I’m unconvinced Polanski has any special emotional investment in Hardy’s England, or how that way of life was spoiled by the arrival of industrial agriculture and other moneyed interests. He puts his purehearted Tess on a pedestal, the better to serve as a locus of attention. She is a passive protagonist by design, one who accepts such quantities of miserable dramatic irony that she eventually lashes out at her chief tormentor in an act that frees her spirit but seals her fate. By movie’s end, when she collapses and sleeps, at last, on a slab of Stonehenge reputed to have been used as an altar for ritual sacrifice, her victim-hero status is assured. It’s neither a sadistic nor a cynical gesture, but it’s not a friendly one, either. Having successfully and spectacularly saddled Tess with not just the burden of innocence but also the crushing weight of history–her long-departed ancestors, sprung from the grave to bedevil her; that damnable thresher, sweating the peasant traditions out of the land–Polanski has us watch as her back is finally broken.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Tess is mastered from a recent 4K restoration completed at Eclair Laboratories that likewise served as a digital source for HD releases from Pathé in France and the BFI in the UK. The picture has a rich and atmospheric quality that pays ample tribute to the tonal properties and range of 35mm Panavision photography on the film stock of the era. The landscapes often feature extraordinary gradations of colour that blossom across the screen, or fields of finely-detailed yellow grain; skies are often made of pillowy-soft strokes of blue and grey. Interiors get an equally lush treatment, with patches of light amongst the shadows marking impromptu points of interest within the larger frame, and gently glowing highlights sometimes suggesting Unsworth’s presence behind the camera. Black levels are never quite inky, but drop far enough to provide the 2.39:1, 1080p image pleasing levels of contrast without blanking out the abundant detail captured in even the darkest parts of the frame. (When the picture means to be truly dark, as when Alec watches Tess work far into the night at the threshing machine lit only by kerosene lamps, you notice the danger lurking there.) If you search for comparisons online, you’ll find that Criterion’s disc is thought to have slightly deeper blacks than its Euro counterparts. If that’s true, the decision would be wholly defensible–Criterion’s transfer doesn’t appear to lose visibility in the low end of the image. The transfer is not especially sharp, but by all accounts it is scrupulously accurate. (Ironically, the Blu-ray almost seems to be softer than earlier DVD transfers, in part because the increased fidelity renders a more genuinely film-like image.) Film grain is barely noticeable most of the time, though it does become more visible in a handful of darker shots. This is an impressive presentation.
Tess gets a 5.1 sound mix, encoded in DTS-HD MA, based on the original four-track mix. Criterion’s liner notes say the audio was remastered from the 35mm mag tracks. Despite that Dolby soundstage, it’s not an especially modern-sounding soundtrack–though I’m guessing it sounded good in a large theatrical environment. While I’d prefer a little more brightness in general (in some scenes, dialogue sounds muffled and a bit boomy, perhaps a by-product of conditions on location), fidelity to the original recordings seems to be high, with a uniformly low noise floor. The surrounds are put to pretty good use, spreading out the instrumentation of Sarde’s score and implementing the occasional environmental sound effect–thunder and rainfall, for instance. More delicate effects are also well-represented. That shot of the cheese-making room in the cellar, with the drip-drip-drip of water into metal pots, makes a surprisingly evocative soundscape out of just a gentle staccato bing-bing-bong.
Extras are plentiful and constitute several hours of documentary material in a few different styles. The most ambitious piece is “A Film and Its Era: Tess“, a 53-minute documentary from 2007 by Serge July and Daniel Ablin. Heavy with clips from Tess, it mainly consists of latter-day interviews with principals from the production–Polanski, Kinski, Lawson, producer Claude Berri, and more–but also attempts to put the film in the context of its era. For instance, July and Ablin discuss the history of agriculture in France compared to England, noting that the French countryside only modernized in the 1960s and 1970s, making Tess a bit more of-the-moment in Brittany than in Wessex. The interviews can be pretty revealing; Kinski discusses doing jail time for shoplifting as a poor adolescent and Philippe Sarde reflects sadly on how relationships built up during production fractured shortly thereafter under financial pressure. July and Ablin do tackle Polanski’s sex scandal head-on, although they use flatly exculpatory language to minimize his offenses. In the end, Polanski says he realized only recently why the movie that influenced him most as a teenager–Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out–held such a strong appeal to him. “It’s the story of a fugitive, you see? A guy who escapes and is pursued.” The interviews are mainly in French with English subtitles, but the voiceover narration is in English.
Fans and students who want to watch Polanski direct will enjoy the featured episode of French TV show “Ciné Regards”, which presents what looks like 16mm footage shot during the making of Tess. Some interview material is included, but the piece is most interesting for its glimpses of Polanski at work among the actors in front of the camera, showing them precisely how their scenes should be played or finding exactly the right vantage point for his camera. “I find a spot which is the spot it should be filmed from,” he says. “When it’s here, it must be here and nowhere else.” A trio of shorts produced by FFC fave Laurent Bouzereau (4×3 upscaled SD) amount to about 75 minutes’ worth of standard-issue talking-heads documentary. (They were produced for Sony’s 2004 DVD release.) These are fine as far as it goes, moving through anecdote after superficial anecdote from a veritable Who’s Who of behind-the-scenes players. At one point it’s genuinely touching, as a teary-eyed Kinski recalls Unsworth’s death, but casual viewers will find the segments as a whole to be overkill.
A 50-minute episode of the Brit-TV institution “The South Bank Show”, which looks to have been converted from PAL to NTSC and then upscaled to HD for presentation on Blu-ray, delivers a longish interview with Polanski in which he reflects on his career, speaking in English. The attention paid to Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Cul de Sac, and Macbeth, all represented with excerpts, offers some welcome variety after the Tess-centric focus elsewhere. Polanski talks style in basic terms, getting animated as he explains the difference between objective and subjective camerawork. At one point, he jumps up out of his seat, slipping easily into the role of film professor.
I guess nobody knew how to sell this thing until Columbia Pictures took it on in the U.S., because the two-minute French trailer is hardly worth including, consisting as it does of nothing more than a series of publicity stills, fading one into the other without much pizzazz. By the way, Criterion hasn’t dug up any deleted scenes, and this package doesn’t go very far towards clarifying the status of the various cuts of the film. According to the “A Film and Its Era…” doc, Polanski whittled Tess down from an early 186-minute cut to 177 minutes for its fall 1979 release in Germany and Paris, but a later 163-minute version released in the U.S. was “definitive.” So it’s an open question where, exactly, the 171-minute version (sans the new Criterion and Pathé logos at the head) on this disc comes from. (At least it’s “director approved.”)
The last special feature is University of Pittsburgh professor Colin McCabe’s booklet essay musing specifically on Tess as an adaptation and elucidating Polanski’s more notable divergences from the text. It’s fine, although it might be that much better were it accompanied by a more straightforward critical appreciation of the film.