Monday, July 16, 2007
6. Tess (1979)
The late and much missed Sharon Tate loved Thomas Hardy's novel TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES dearly. She was said to have related to the title character in an extremely personal and intense way. Shortly before her murder in 1969, Sharon Tate gave her husband, Roman Polanski, a copy of the novel in the hopes that he would film it one day. Ten years after she was the victim of one of the most brutal and senseless crimes of the century, Roman Polanski released his version of the work she had felt so completely connected to. The mood of the entire film is set just after the film's opening credits with the stirring and sweet, "To Sharon"
Polanski had kept Thomas Hardy's influential and important work with him throughout the seventies. After Tate's murder he knew that he had to film the novel in tribute to her memory and spirit but that the trick was finding an actress that would be able to portray the difficult and heartbreaking character of Hardy's doomed heroine the way it needed to be.
Roman Polanski first caught a look at Nastassja Kinski in the mid seventies and befriended her and her mother. Throughout the seventies he was Kinski's mentor, sometimes lover and among the most influential people in her life. TESS wasn't actually the first time they had worked together, their first collaboration was on an intriguing pirate themed photo shoot for Vogue magazine in 1976. The photos from the session would be among the best taken of the young Kinski and would foreshadow one of Polanski's dream projects, the ill fated PIRATES that he would eventually film in 1985.
Filmed on location in France throughout a nine month period just after his masterful THE TENANT, Polanksi's TESS is his most personal and hauntingly beautiful work. It is also his most human and Nastassja, with her warm aura of dignity and decency was the only person who could have injected Hardy's character with so much soul.
Everything about TESS works. It is paced perfectly and never drags even though it runs nearly three hours. The majestic score by Philippe Sarde is among the award winning composers best. Anthony Powell's costume design and the art direction of Jack Stephens are both peerless in their craft and attention to detail. The look of the film is perfectly realized even though the cast and crew suffered a major shock when beloved cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth died halfway through production and Ghislain Cloquet stepped in and did the impossible task of finsihing the film. Watching TESS is like watching an extremely complicated machine with hundreds of tiny parts that are working perfectly to compliment the other and throughout it's mammoth running time, the complex machine never once slips.
TESS tells the story of the young Tess Durbeyfield whose drunken father finds out at the beginning of the film that their poverty stricken family is actually descended from the wealthy and proper D'Urbervilles. Tess is sent to claim kin to, what is thought, to be among the other final remaining D'Ubervilles and her life after is systematically and tragically torn apart by virtually every man she meets and the society that she was unfortunate enough to have been born in.
At the core of TESS is the idea of fate. An early long tracking shot towards the beginning points directly to this as Polanski films Kinski walking down a long path surrounded by a covering of trees to what she thinks is her kin's house. This is one of the most ominous shots in all of Polanski's impressive filmography and there isn't any question, for Tess or the audience, that she is walking into another world and there won't be any turning back. Throughout the film's running time we are continually presented with the idea that Tess is being led by some sort of unspoken destiny, and that no matter how hard she fights it there is finally not going to be an escape for her.
TESS is also one of the most masterful films ever made in dealing with the problems of class. One of the great geniuses of the screen play, credited to Polanski, Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, is that our leading character is ultimately somebody who doesn't care about position, only respect. Everyone around Tess is obsessed by their positions. Her family is jealous of the higher ups and want nothing more than to be among them, no matter if it costs them their daughter. The higher ups in the film are all portrayed as cold and obsessed with their position and how much it means to be able to have their way over the lowers. Tess is caught in the middle of this struggle but as a character all she wants is to love and be loved. Tess is the one truly honorable character in the film and she is the one character who is constantly getting run over by the harsh system her life has been destined to. One of the most telling lines in the film is said by a worker after Tess rides away with the shallow and insensitive Alec, "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."
Along with the question of class that is repeatedly brought up, TESS also centers on treatment of women in society as something less than even second rate. Almost without exception, every villain in TESS is a man and Polanski shows us a harsh world where it isn't just that women are looked down upon but there isn't even the slightest hint that the men in it have any feeling for them, other than how they make them feel as men. Peter Firth's Angel is the darkest character in the film mainly because he claims a goodness and caring but even towards the end when he takes Tess back we are still given the feeling that the act is ultimately a selfish one on his part. Angel, like every other man in the film, ultimately can't understand what Tess means when she explains, "What all women say, some may feel." The only person who says exactly what she feels, and who genuinely loves in this film, is Tess herself.
Nowhere in the film are these issues of class and the split between men and women more noticeable than in the astonishing sequence where Tess takes her dead baby to the town's priest asking for a church burial. After explaining that she had baptised the baby by herself and having the priest tell her that was right in the eyes of God she is still turned away from the church because the father is afraid of the town's reaction. Here Polanski presents us wity a holy man who cowers more towards the very man made rules of class and sexism rather than the wishes of the God he proclaims to serve. Kinski is stunning in this sequence and Polanksi's unnerving closeup of her face and her denouncement of the church is among the greatest moments in either one of their canons.
TESS is finally a film about nature, specifically how far society is slipping away from it and how Tess is essentially a part of it. Kinski is often photographed as not only a character on a landscape but as essentially belonging to it. It is no coincidence that the first close up of her in the film is a stunning shot of her standing in front of a sunset. The rising and setting sun will play a part throughout the film and it is almost always shot with Kinski somewhere in the frame. There is something almost mystical about Tess in these moments and whether she is speaking about laying in the grass and transporting herself to the sky to a table full of confused onlookers or having a wild deer approach her in the words, Tess is very much in tune with the world that the men around her are only looking to pillage and destroy. Of course one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the film is that, much like the land that the men will ultimately destroy, Tess is equally savaged and finally left very much behind to pay for the mens crimes against nature and humanity.
Polanski's direction of the film is flawless. This doesn't feel like a film about the past, this feels like a film filmed in this past. TESS is filled with some of the most beautifully composed shots of his career, from the close ups of Kinski whistling to a group of caged birds to her staring through a window (both of which recall Sharon Tate in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) to the final shots of the vast and foggy landscape surrounding Kinski as she sleeps atop Stonehenge. TESS might not be the greatest film Polanski ever made but it is without question the most beautiful.
Despite all of the great people that worked so tirelessly behind the scenes on TESS, the film would not have worked without Nastassja Kinski. She is magnificent throughout the film and gives an explosively humbly performance that infuses the character with a dignity that very few actresses could have even begun to approach. As promising as she was in her first five films, through Polanski's lens Kinski comes alive and carries the film through from beginning to end in an endearing performance that is refreshing, tragic and ultimately heartbreaking.
TESS was a film that nobody thought had a chance and yet when it came out it was one of the most acclaimed and talked about films of Roman Polanski's career. Nominated for six academy awards (including picture and director) and winner of three, TESS was a smashing success. Kinski was shamefully ignored by the academy but was nominated for a Cesar and Golden Globe and the film made her a global superstar.
The film made it's debut on VHS in the eighties in full screen transfer and outside of a Japanese widescreen disc, this was the only way to see it for two decades. Thankfully it finally got its due two years ago in a gorgeous widescreen special edition dvd that has an engrossing ninety minute documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with nearly everyone connected to the project.
TESS is a near perfect film and one of the great cinematic meditations on fate, destiny, class struggle, sexism and redemption. The teaming of Roman Polanski and Nastassja Kinski was one of the great partnerships in modern film and while it is regrettable that they have never worked together again, perhaps it is right. TESS would be mark an end to a period in Polanski's life and career, it remains his most personal work and one of his greatest. As Tess, Nastassja was given the most important role in her career and there are few performances in cinema that I hold in higher esteem.
I have no doubt that Sharon Tate would have been most pleased and highly moved had she been allowed to see the film that she had asked Roman to make in that fateful and tragic summer of 1969. Her contribution to the film shouldn't be undervalued and TESS is a bold, beautiful and fitting tribute to her memory.