Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 69 (B)
Well, that happened. Roman Polanski was on his way to prepping a film called The First Deadly Sin before the rape of a 13-year-old-girl sent his life through a spiral. Polanski moved on to a remake of John Ford’s Hurricane during the utterly bizarre circus of a trial (well-documented in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, now available on Netflix Instant, which doesn’t deny Polanski’s guilt but brings up the legal complexities of the case) before he fled the United States. Polanski then moved on to a project borne out of his desire to make “something beautiful”: Tess, based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which Polanski’s late wife Sharon Tate gave to him before her murder. Tess was released to wildly positive reviews and garnered Polanski his second Best Director nomination. But years later, does the film really stand out as one of the director’s best?
Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is the daughter of a poor farming family. When her father discovers the family’s distant relation to the rich D’Urbervilles, he sends Tess to live with and work for the family. There, she meets Alec (Leigh Lawson), a “cousin” who has bought his way into the family and who eventually rapes Tess. Tess leaves and gives birth to a child which soon dies. She then finds work as a milkmaid and falls for Angel (Peter Firth), the son of a parson trying to make his name as a farmer. The two marry, but Angel deserts her when he learns of her past with Alec. Tess is forced to become Alec’s mistress, but when Angel returns she is pushed to action that will lead to tragedy.
First thing’s first: this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Polanski and cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and (after Unsworth’s death) Ghislain Cloquet make every shot a portrait, as if they saw Kubrick’s (superior) Barry Lyndon and said “I’ll show you!”. Whether Polanski and company are in the beautiful hills of Locronan, France (posing as England) or the dusty interiors of a farmhouse, Tess has to be just about one of the most lovely looking films ever made. The soft haze to a number of the shots gives a false sense of calm to the viewer, particularly in Alec’s attempted seduction of Tess (see: suggestive shot of Tess with a strawberry) before his eventual rape of her in an equally hazy scene. It’s subtly powerful stuff.
Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson are both adept as the hypocritical Angel and the slimy Alec, but the film wouldn’t work without Kinski’s fine work as Tess. There’s a natural awkwardness to Kinski’s performance, but that’s perfect for a character who never finds her place in life. Tess is a woman shamed not by her own hand but by the actions of another, and her tentativeness around Alec gives his every action a queasy overtone even before he violates her. Her hesitation around Angel, meanwhile, comes from her own knowledge that the world is cruel towards women, and that she may not be forgiven even for something that wasn’t her fault.
The film is ultimately another play on Polanski’s pet themes of power and an unfair world. Tess truly never had a chance: class differences and dominance by her own unyielding father have forced her to stay with an odious man. Her fellow workers despise her for Alec’s attention towards her. Her whole life is a push-pull between her love for a man who won’t overlook a past trauma (in spite of his own indiscretions) and an exploitative creep who preys on humanity’s worst tendencies. It’s ripe ground for Polanski.
So I loved Tess, right? Well, no. It’s a highly admirable film, far more accomplished than the stodgy literary adaptations and period costume dramas I abhor, not to mention far more ambitious. But Tess moves at a snail’s pace, often feeling more like a richly imagined but essentially shapeless book on film that desperately begs for someone to realize that what works on the page doesn’t always make for compelling drama and cut the chase. And while Polanski deftly brings across the tension of Tess’ situation, he’s far more suited to films with constant threats of violence than he is to a quaint period piece. Tess is an admirable film, alright, but admirable and gripping aren’t always the same thing.
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