Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gerard Brach, John Blowjohn and Roman Polanski, based upon the novel of the same name by Thomas Hardy
Starring Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson
There’s one thing I want to make absolutely clear right from the start: Though Tess was directed by Roman Polanski, I will not be discussing Roman Polanski’s guilty plea in 1977 to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse, in the course of this post. I will not take sides on that issue, nor will I make moral judgments about it.
This is not to say I’m uninterested in it, or don’t have thoughts on it, or think it’s unimportant – because I am, I do, and it is. It’s just that, at the end of the day, I’m reviewing the movie, not the man, and so want to be fair to the film as a piece of art, disconnected from the artists baggage. So in the same way we don’t look at old Judy Garland films and color what we’re seeing by the fact she was basically an addict; or old Joan Crawford or Bing Crosby films by the allegations of child abuse; or, Elizabeth Taylor films by her serial marriages, I won’t look at this film in light of Polanski’s admitted crime and try to read into it some sort of ‘confession’. Nor will I hold anybody who worked on the film to account for it. That’s just not what I’m going to do.
That said, there are interesting things about this movie that are made more interesting by the legal situation hanging over Polanski at the time of it’s filming and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least draw the connections between them. So I won’t be remiss, and I’ll draw those connections. But that’s about it.
Biggest obvious connection? Prior to Polanski’s legal troubles – from the mid-60’s to the late-70’s – he made Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fearless Vampire Hunters, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant, and Tess. On it’s own, that would make an astounding oeuvre. By my count it contains at least four classics there, one of which – Rosemary’s Baby – is probably the second-greatest horror film ever made.
But, just as he’s made some classic, he’s made some truly sub-classic films, almost all of them falling into the period of time after he fled the United States to avoid his legal troubles and jail. Somehow, I can’t help but find that timing significant.
What’s It About?
Rural England, 19th century. After a church parson tells a man he might be descended from money and nobility, the man sends his daughter, Tess, off to essentially try to shake down a distant cousin for money. Instead, the cousin gets her a job and takes a romantic interest in her. But she’s uninterested in home, and so after rejecting him over-and-over, the cousin rapes her.
Later, while working on a dairy farm, she meets another young man, and they marry. Unfortunately, on their wedding night, when she explains about having been raped, giving birth to a child, and the child dying, her husband rejects her. Were it not tragic enough already, Tess returns to the cousin/rapist, not for love, but to avoid poverty.
After while, Tess’ husband returns to reclaim her and, to be free of the cousin, she stabs the cousin and kills him. Eventually, she is caught and hung.
Another director might’ve played this film as a melodrama, and it’s got all the elements. It’s got the poverty, it’s got the sex, it’s got the dead baby, it’s got the crying, it’s got the murder. This easily could have been played big, with every emotion foregrounded, and every line read with real gusto. It easily could have been a latter-day Gone With The Wind.
But Polanski goes the other way with it, understanding broadness would change Tess from tragedy to comedy, which he does not want. And so committed is Polanski to hold the dramatic line here that even the most sniveling, despicable character – the cousin, Alec – is charming and well-kempt and well-behaved.
All of this is appropriate though, given the movie is ultimately a comment on the tyranny of repression. If the actors were allowed to run free with the drama, it would undermine the repression we see onscreen. But, to make the movie in such a reserved, restrained way, and to hold the emotions down, the repression in the story itself is emphasized further by the manner in which it’s told.
Aside from restraining the emotions, Polanski is very restrained in the way he actually films the movie. Unlike his earlier films, which were characterized by bravura visual flourishes – see e.g. Chinatown – Tess is very restrained. Throughout, the film is told with a static camera and very long takes that are meant to give us a feeling of the pace of the times – if everybody has to travel by foot, they’re not getting anywhere fast and neither does the movie. But though the film is shot this way, it is not without tension, building it by playing with audience expectations. For instance, the film opens with a very long take of a man, Angel, who we only see in passing. We haven’t met him yet, and won’t meet him properly for an hour or so, when he’ll become real important to the story, but the shot lingers on him as if to signal his importance. It’s the film saying, visually, “Remember this guy.” Then, when he shows up later, we understand that everything we see has importance and purpose.
Later, when a shot similarly lingers on a lantern, there is tension in wondering why. After all, if the camera lingered before on a man who turned out important, then lingering on this lantern surely must mean something. A fire, perhaps? But by not having the fire Polanski signals the unpredictability of what we’re seeing and invests it with enough tension so that, by the time Tess fixes her eyes on a knife just before stabbing the cousin, we can’t be sure if the knife is important, or if it’s just another lantern.
Then, to add to the tension over the knife, Polanski keeps the actual crime off-screen and only finally reveals a murder has taken place by blood dripping through a ceiling minutes later.
Aside from the direction, it is worth noting that the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth is quite sumptuous. For a movie that takes place in a time when there were no electric lights, and when much of the world seems to be made of mud, the photography paints it as a beautiful, gorgeous world.
Also winning Oscars were the art directors Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens. While the sets in Tess, and their design, are nice, they hardly look spectacular, and I can’t help but wonder if their Oscars were as much the result of recreating rural 19th-century England in France, which is where the film had to be made, owing to Polanski likely being extradited to the United States to face jail time if he ever set foot in England, as it is for anything else. A reward for overcoming the difficulty of the situation, as it were.
What’s Not So Good?
The plot of this film, like the plot of many films, hinges on the inability of the characters to just sit down and have a conversation with one another. Despite having all the time in the world for it, they never actually just do it. And if they had talked, much of the tragedy could be avoided. After all, many of Tess’ heartaches stem from her dead child and the fact she was raped, and was later rejected for it by her new husband, reasoning:
“He is your natural husband…not I.”
Well, if she’d just been honest from the jump with her soon-to-be-husband about it, much of the misery she suffered doesn’t happen. Nor would she wind up hung.
Nastassja Kinski was born in Germany, to German parents. I can only assume her first language growing up was German, with a German accent. Yet, in this movie she plays a English girl with an English accent. Now, I’m given to believe Kinski worked and worked at the accent and she does achieve a level of technical proficiency with it that is impressive. Unfortunately, while she’s good at it, on the whole it never coalesces or seems like anything more than an accent she’s playing at. It lacks the sludginess the creeps into the accents of native speakers, and seems just a touch too practiced. Worse, there are times when you can hear her original accent sneaking in, ruining the illusion. I give Kinski props for trying hard, and almost achieving it, but it’s just like the uncanny valley – getting close to perfection, but not close enough, is far-more off-putting than not coming close at all.
Then There’s This
The basic plot of this movie is driven by a rape Tess experiences at the hands of her cousin, Alec. It is unpleasant how he constantly harasses her, and it is unpleasant when she finally gives in and kisses him, only to find herself raped for her troubles.
What’s more unpleasant than that is knowing Polanski filmed this scene roughly two years after he had his own unlawful sexual episode with a teenage girl and how some of the events of his real-life encounter might have informed the events in the film. In short, the reality of Polanski’s life made watching this part of the film extra-gross.
What’s fascinating, though, is that while Polanski protested the events of his own unlawful sexual episode – he claimed it was consensual, there was no force – he does not restage the rape in the film to mirror his own version of the events in his life. He does not film it to exonerate himself. He does not film it with the intention of showing, “She was asking for it,” or, “You guys don’t understand.”
No, he stages it as a clear rape, essentially puts the victims view of events onscreen, and does not back down from how vile it is. So, on the one level, the encounter is vile. Then it’s doubly-vile when you remember the real-life scenario from Polanski’s own past informing it. And yet, it’s also fascinating to consider the thought process Polanski went through, in the shadow of his own legal troubles, to choose to make this film, with this scene, and to film it in just this way.
Better Than Best
Tess was not a difficult film to watch. For a three-hour movie, with a slow pace, and is mostly quiet and told through ellipses, it seems like you should resist it, but you can’t. It’s not boring, even as it is clearly too long.
But, is it better than best?
Tess lost Best Picture 1980 to Ordinary People, a film that is much broader with it’s emotions, much more foregrounded with what it means to say. Of the two, I can’t decide which is better – Tess or Ordinary People – because while both are good films, if I was forced to choose between one or the other, I’d simply flip a coin. Or watch neither.
Of course, if we were really trying to determine what was the Best Picture of 1980, neither one of these films holds a candle to The Empire Strikes Back.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 He also made the film What? during this stretch, which I have not seen, but is supposed to be a real stinker.
 The Shining will always be #1 in my book, baby.
 Except for the rape – well-behaved, except for the rape.
 Cloquet replaced Unsworth mid-stream after Unsworth died during production. Both men received Oscars for their work.
 Those events are disputed, but we’ll take the statements of the victim at face-value.
 Not in perfect detail, but in the broad strokes at least.