[Last Film I Watch] Tess (1979)

Tess poster

Title: Tess
Year: 1979
Country: France, UK
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers:
Gérard Brach
Roman Polanski
John Brownjohn
based on Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”
Music: Philippe Sarde
Cinematography:
Ghislain Cloquet
Geoffrey Unsworth
Cast:
Nastassja Kinski
Peter Firth
Leigh Lawson
John Collin
Rosemary Martin
Carolyn Pickles
Richard Pearson
David Markham
Pascale de Boysson
Arielle Dombasle
Suzanna Hamilton
Caroline Embling
Tony Church
Lesley Dunlop
Sylvia Coleridge
Fred Bryant
Rating: 8.0/10

Tess 1979

Roman Polanski’s epic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES is a tremendous enterprise for him since he entirely recreates the rural setting of Wessex during the Victorian era in various locations of France, even forges a fake Stonehedge where our heroine Tess (Kinski) is literally presented as an innocent sacrifice to redeem her sins in the sublime denouement.

Tess is born a farmer’s girl, when her drunkard father John Durbeyfield (Collins) accidentally learns of that his family is authentically descended from a noble family named d’Urbervilles, whose past glory fixates him and his wife (Martin), so after finding out there is a family called d’Urbervilles living in a manor house nearby, they send Tess, their eldest child to seek kinship and employment. Soon after arriving, Tess meets Alec d’Urbervilles (Lawson), a rakish nobleman supposed to be her cousin, but later she will find out Alec has no blood relation with her, since his family bought the noble title. Alec falls for the drop-dead gorgeous Tess instantly, but Tess is repugnant to his nouveau riche vulgarity, until one night, in order to make a break from a quarrel with her fellow farmer, she opts to leave with Alec on the horseback, after a partially consensus mating (one may call it a rape but Polanski tenders a more ambiguous account of the act, an initial mutual attraction is pretty obvious, and later, Tess begins to mildly resist him but that’s all she wrote, maybe Polanski himself is just uncertain where the boundary is considering his own scandalous personal life at then), Tess loses her virginity to Alec and leaves him, but pregnant with their child, who will kick the bucket soon.

The next chapter is Tess meets her true love Angel Clare (Firth), an aspiring farmer well-versed in CAPTIAL: CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, but their marriage slopes into a tragedy the very first night after tying the knot, following a missed opportunity to confess to Angel about her past misfortune before the marriage, where Angel’s ominous oath “nothing will change my love for you” is designed to rebound on himself when the crunch arrives, Tess’s final revelation results in the worst nightmare scenario for her, completely shatters her naive belief that he can take it lightly and forgive her, the sexist double-standard is the inveterate tumour. Through the racking focus alters from Tess to Angel, then back to Tess, their fate is predestined, he is no “Angel”, just a foolish man, obsessed with the factor that he is not Tess’s “natural husband”, calls her the last line of degenerate aristocrats. He shackles himself in his own partisan opinion, cruelly suggests they should keep up appearance of the marriage, then banishes her away.

After that, Tess wanders about in a desperate plight especially when the whole family is evicted from their property after John’s death, so Alec comes back in the picture and tries brazenly to win her back and guarantees to support her family, Angel returns too and all remorseful to his desertion, finally the intangible love triangle will evolve into a blatant murder and the outcome is a completely man-made tragedy, a cautionary tale about people who are trapped in their own religious or moral prisons.

The film’s Oscar-winning cinematography, art direction and costume design are well-deserved standouts in this 3-hour saga, especially the heavenly-looking scenography, sterlingly garnishes the narrative with an otherworldly touch and masterfully enhances a restrained dramatic power within Tess’s undulated destiny. At the age of 18, the German-born Kinski is a peerless beauty, takes on such an iconic character with her wholehearted devotion, she might not be a pliable actress, but under the tutelage of Polanski, her Tess is a strong-minded ingénue exuding mature sexual appeal even in the most hideous garment, it is also to her credit, Tess convincingly transforms from a wide-eyed adolescent to a presentable upper-society missus during an unstated span of years.

Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson, both give a laudable interpretation as Angel and Alec, two men who are madly in love with Tess but both are marked with their own unforgivable flaws, Alec is a wanton libertine, spoiled by wealth and superiority, but is Angel a better man than him? His ruthless betrayal hurts much more than Alec’s bestiality as far as Tess is concerned, he supposedly belongs to an open-minded generation, is keen to procure his love by his free will, still, as things turn out, deep down, he is also poisoned by the passé moral bias, it is more poignant to see him fail to be the saviour. What about Tess, should she also be partially accountable for her own undoing? It is sensitively implied that the blue-blood vanity is inherited from bloodline, otherwise, she and Alec could be a make-do couple without tainting her good name and integrity.

As a whole, Polanski’s TESS is an extraordinary achievement of transposing a literature gem to a visually fetching period film, one of his finest works.

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