Tess Criterion Collection Review: Polanski's Vision of Victorian England

Roman Planski's Tess is a beautifully shot adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel about Victorian England.
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Tess is an unforgettable film, and one of the finest of Roman Polanski’s career. The fact that it lost to Ordinary People for Best Picture surprises me, but the movie was not completely ignored by the Academy. Tess was nominated in six categories, and won in three: Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design.

In watching the newly released Criterion Blu-ray, I believe that it holds an additional appeal today that may not have been apparent back in 1979. Thirty-five years later, Tess is more than just a great movie. It is an example of a filmmaking style that seems to be gone forever and is almost like a last glimpse of Old Hollywood.

One of the most striking elements about Tess is the leisurely way in which Polanski allows his story to unfold. We simply do not see this anymore. The film is nearly three hours in length, and it is a feast for movie lovers. I am not at all surprised that the cinematography received the award, as it is so magnificent.

From the opening wide shot of people dancing on a road by a field, we understand that this film is not in a hurry. We are allowed to take in the entire panorama, which is gorgeous. These types of shots occur over and over, with a camera following someone walking, or horseback riding - for an exquisitely long period of time.

I remember when MTV actually showed music videos, and the concern was that audiences would become accustomed to the quick edits and fast pace. Once this happened, the worry was that this style would take over in features. At the time, I did not believe this would happen, that video and film were two distinct mediums.

Well, I was wrong. Just look at The Wolf of Wall Street. Now this is a very good movie, and about as far from an insipid Warrant video as can be imagined. But it is also a three-hour thrill ride. Pace is everything today, but Tess flows like a dream. A very bad dream to be sure, but a dream nontheless.

The film is based on the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, published in 1891. In Polanski’s adaptation of the book, Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is a peasant girl in Victorian England whose life is the stuff of Greek tragedy. The Durbeyfields live a life of drunken misery in the fields. When Tess’ father is told that the Durbeyfields are related to the wealthy, aristocratic d’Urberville family, he sends her there to try and make a claim. As it turns out, the d’Urbervilles are not at all what they seem. This is a family of traders who have bought the d’Urberville name in an effort to acquire instant status.

Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson) is a despicable cad who Tess wants nothing to do with. Of course he wants her, and uses his money to try and get her interested. He sends the Durbeyfields a horse, and buys Tess baubles. Eventually he gets fed up with waiting for her and takes what he believes is his. Tess goes back to her family, in pregnant shame. The outrages continue when the village doctor will not tend to the sickly baby, and when it dies, the bastard child is not even allowed a proper burial.

Welcome to adulthood, Tess. She leaves again, and winds up in a friendly village where nobody knows of her sordid past. Angel Clare (Peter Firth) is the son of the Reverend Clare (David Markham), a kind and gentle young man who Tess finds love with, for the first time in her life. They are set to be married, but he does not know her history, so she writes him a note to explain things. It is only after the marriage that Tess finds out that he never read the note, and his response to her confession is of betrayal and anger.

Angel and Tess are in their room after the wedding, and Angel confesses to her that he was once with a prostitute. Tess forgives him immediately, and then tells Angel how she was raped, became pregnant, and the baby died. Upon hearing the news, Angel walks out on her, and will not be seen again for many years. During this time, Tess is coerced to go back to Alec and become his mistress to help her family. She spends many years in this role and seems to have lost her soul in doing so.

Angel does return, and professes to have forgiven her, but by then it is too late. Well, not exactly too late, they are able to share two days of marital bliss. But the actions Tess felt she had to take to make this possible catch up to them in the end. This scene is positively transcendent in itself. The two have been running all night, and Tess is tired. They arrive at Stonehenge, and Tess lies down on one of the rocks for a little shut-eye. The scene of the sun coming up while she sleeps, and the English police surrounding them is as beautiful as anything I have ever seen. Beautiful, and of course bittersweet, as it is all over for them at this point.

Hardy’s novel had to have been meant as a condemnation of Victorian morals, as the story of Tess is the story of the double standards between men and women writ large. In fact, it is not even a double standard, as Tess was raped. Yet it made no difference, she had a child out of wedlock, and was basically an “untouchable” because of it. Anyone who knows of the scandalous history of Polanski will surely see the irony in him being the director of this film.

According to the essay by Colin MacCabe in the enclosed booklet, Tess of the d’Urbervilles has been filmed eight times, including two silent versions. He also mentions that Polanski’s script deviates at times from the novel, including the conclusion. Having not read the book, I cannot compare the two, but I can say that the ending of the film is incredible. There are many little things that I have left out in my review, and my guess is that some of these were added as well. They do not necessarily advance the plot, but they certainly add to the viewer’s immersion in this period. Today. they would probably be excised to get the film down to 120 minutes, but I am very happy that they remain.

Although the film is set in England, Tess was actually filmed in France, and the landscapes are gorgeous. And as the Oscars for Costuming and Set Decoration confirm, those elements are also outstanding. All of this beauty is transferred to Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. While this may sound funny to some, there are times when I find the format almost too sharp, and was curious as to how the soft tones of Tess would look. Not to worry, as this film looks beautiful with the rich, earthy colors coming through perfectly. The audio is 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, which is impressive as well.

There are nearly three-and-a-half hours of bonus features included. The first of these is an episode of a French television show titled Cine regards, which first aired on October 28, 1979, and is hosted by Pierre-Andre Boutang. The program is something of a behind-the-scenes documentary, and features Polanski explaining various things about the production. The dialogue is in French with English subtitles. (48:49).

Once Upon a Time…Tess is a 2006 documentary by Daniel Ablin and Serge July about the making of the film. The piece features interviews with Polanski, Kinski, Lawson, producer Claude Berri, costume designer Anthony Powell, and composer Philippe Sarde. This program was produced in 2006, and it is intriguing to note what the participants thought of the film some 27 years later. The subtitle is “A Film & Its Era,“ and that very definitely applies to the direction the conversations take. This period of ’79-80 was pivotal in that it was the beginning of the Reagan Revolution and that followed. Placing Tess in context adds a lot to our appreciation of it. (52:46)

On the Making of Tess is actually a trilogy of pieces from 2004, all directed by Laurent Bouzereau. One of the early revelations in "From Novel to Screen" (28:41) comes from Polanski, in which he explains that he was introduced to the book by Sharon Tate. As the title implies "Filming Tess” (26:12) describes the filming process in France. The third piece is “Tess: The Experience (19:39), and it is a less technical look than the "Filming" chapter was, and more about how everyone got along together.

It seems they all got along quite well, with the occasional flare-up here and there. Besides Polanski, other participants in these documentaries include Kinski, Lawson, co-screenwriter John Brownjohn, producers Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill, costume designer Anthony Powell, set decorator Pierre Guffroy, and others.

The South Bank Show is a 1979 episode from the English series, hosted by Melvyn Bragg and titled “Roman Polanski.” In the interview, Bragg talks with Polanski about all facets of his career, and of the then-new Tess. Thankfully, Bragg steers clear from all of the tabloid fodder, and focuses on his movies. (50:27). The final supplement is the original theatrical trailer (1:51).

Tess is a film that in many ways stands out of time. In a way, it could be compared to Chinatown in that respect, as it has nothing to do with what was going on in Hollywood when it was made. In 1974, disaster films were all the rage, and a homage to film noir was about the last thing anyone expected. In 1979, the “Me Decade” was at its peak, and maybe that is why Ordinary People won the statuette.

In any event, I believe that this is a picture that just gets better with age. It is a reminder of how good the medium can be, for one thing. It is also a reminder of how enjoyable it is to watch in which a film that luxuriates in the use of long shots. You actually feel like a grown-up for a change, rather than a little kid who the director is desperately trying to keep interested. Tess is very special movie indeed, and one for the ages.

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