"Tess" (1979, France) was co-written and directed by Roman Polanski after he fled to France from the United States in 1978 to escape the consequences of his guilty plea to unlawful sex with a minor. The next year, he directed a film, based on Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" about a peasant girl raped by a putative aristocrat and bearing the consequences of that pretty much alone. It is interesting to reflect on the coincidence or irony, but this review is focusing on the story-telling and the cinematography. Polanski, in fact, was given Hardy's novel by his wife Sharon Tate (prior to her horrific death) years earlier because she loved the story and wanted her husband to turn it into a film. He had begun working on it about two years before its release and dedicated it to Sharon Tate's memory.
Thomas Hardy, a nineteenth century poet and novelist, published "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" in 1891. In this book, and two others ("The Woodlands" (1887) and "Jude the Obscure" (1895)), Hardy told stories that highlighted the hypocrisy of attitudes towards women, particularly in the context of marriage, divorce, class, nature, and sexuality. These were controversial themes for the late nineteenth century. In fact, "Jude the Obscure" was banned from libraries and publicly burned by a Bishop. The public outcry about his novels ended up being good for sales and allowed Hardy to stop writing novels (many of which were published in serial form) and concentrate on poetry for the rest of his life.
The story of "Tess" is of the "fallen woman," and how she pays the price for the violent and forceful behavior of Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson) and society's double standard. Tess is the oldest of several children in an impoverished family from the village of Marlott in England. When her drunken father, John Durbeyfield (John Collin), learns that he is in fact a descendant the powerful d’Urberville line, he sends daughter Tess to visit a wealthy d'Urberville nearby in the hopes that his family can benefit from their wealth. Tess first encounters son Alec. Expressing to her that "beauty has its price," almost immediately Alec sets out to seduce her. Naive and offended, Tess makes it clear she is only looking for work and is hired by Alec's mother to manage the poultry farm. She has learned that this family is not, in fact, of the d'Urberville lineage since it merely purchased the name and coat of arms from one of her distant relatives.
Alec eventually forces himself on Tess, but she doesn't leave immediately. Grim in his presence, despite his lavish gifts to her, she soon leaves the estate to return to her own family. She expresses the wish that she'd never been born. After Tess bears a sickly child, she returns to field work, though is shunned by her co-workers, the vicar, and other villagers. She loses the child, gives him a private Christian burial, and leaves Marlott to seek work at a distant dairy farm.
At the farm, Angel Clare (Peter Firth) is intrigued by Tess's innocence, beauty, and work ethic. During a suppertime discussion with other field hands and farm owner Mr. Crick, there is a discussion on when the soul leaves the body. Tess reflects: "We can sometimes make our souls leave our bodies. You only have to lie on the grass at night and look straight up at some bright star and stare at it with all your might. And by and by, you'll feel you're falling into the sky miles and miles from your body, which you don't seem to need at all." Angel falls in love with her at this moment. She loves him too, but must let him know about her past. When her efforts at soul-bearing are unsuccessful (her letter to him is hidden from his view), she decides to not tell him the truth and they marry. She suffers the consequences of this deception and the rest of the novel and film plays out as a tragedy.
The hardships experienced by Tess in this sad tale take place in the outstanding beauty of the countryside, a perfect metaphor for Tess's beauty, honesty, and pure love. The film opens with a celebratory procession of women dressed in white or cream-colored dresses, a few children, and musicians playing delightful music as all slowly walk down a dirt road (bringing to mind some of the crowds in Fellini's films). The cinematography in this film, from this very first scene, is extraordinary. Shot during what appears to be magic hour, the next scene of women dancing in a field is joyous, beautiful, and completely natural in this agrarian setting. There is a slow languishing pace to the film at times, allowing the viewer to drink in the imagery, the pastures, the wheat fields, the fox hunting spectacle shrouded in fog, Tess walking alone down a country road surrounded by nature's beauty, and other amazing scenes.
A number are shot at sunrise or sunset, or the sun is used to elicit a dramatic effect. Take, for example, the moment when Tess climbs the ladder to Angel's loft and sees that her written confession that she slipped under his door got stuck under the carpeting. The sun flares behind her and for a moment there is nothing else on screen. Also beautiful is the scene as the film concludes where the sun rises and peaks through a precise spot between several of the stones at Stonehenge while Tess is taken away to bear her fate. Intercut with shots of the sunrise are shots of Tess, as she is accompanied by Angel and two policemen while they slowly walk down the road, becoming smaller as the land and surroundings loom larger. This film won "Best Cinematography" at the 1981 Academy Awards for Geoffrey Unsworth (who died during the filming and prior to "Tess" and may be best known for his incredible work on "2001" and "Cabaret") and his successor Ghislain Cloquet.
A short note about the music: The score by Sarde, nominated for an Oscar, brings to mind soundtracks from melodramas of the 1950s. The music does not overwhelm the film, but appears at precisely the right times, highlighting the depths of emotions felt by Tess, emphasizing the extraordinary beauty of the rural lands, or transitioning the viewer to the next scene.
This film was the breakthrough role of 17-year-old Nastassja Kinski and she was nominated for three awards and won the Golden Globe based on her extraordinary portrayal of Tess. Further, despite the controversy surrounding Roman Polanski, "Tess" was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1981 (including Best Director, Best Music, and Best Picture) and won three (Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design) . It also won two Golden Globes (Best Foreign Film, New Star of the Year-Female) that year. Its outstanding cinematography won awards from BAFTA, the British Society of Cinematographers, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Césars.
This critically acclaimed film is being presented the next four days in a new digital restoration approved by Polanski. It screens at the Whitsell Auditorium, the entrance to which is at the northern end of the Portland Art Museum. Tickets ranges from $6 (for member supporters) to $9 and can be purchased online or at the theater entrance a half hour prior to screening. Screenings are tonight, March 8 at 7pm and again Saturday, March 9 at 7 pm, Sunday, March 10 at 5 pm, and Monday, March 11 at 7 pm.