Thursday, June 25, 2009
Sharon Tate loved Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the Dubervilles dearly, and related to Hardy’s doomed heroine in an extremely personal way. Shortly before her horrific murder in 1969, Sharon gave her husband, famed director 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, Polanski (who was in the shadow of yet another personal tragedy) released his version of the work his beloved late wife had felt so completely connected to. He would indeed set the mood of the entire film just after the opening credits with the stirring and sweet, "To Sharon", and Tess remains one of the most personal works from one of the world’s great directors.
Polanski had kept Thomas Hardy's influential and important book 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 the trick was finding an actress that would be able to portray the difficult and heartbreaking role of Hardy's most iconic character with the grace and passion it called for.
Polanski first caught a look at young Nastassja Kinski in the mid seventies and befriended her and her mother. Throughout the seventies he was Kinski's mentor, friend and among the most influential people in her life. Tess actually wouldn’t be their first collaboration, as they had shot an intriguing pirate themed photo shoot for Vogue magazine in 1976 that would help set Kinski’s career in motion. 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.
Nastassja, or Nastassia as she was known in this period, had appeared in almost half a dozen films before Tess and had already made international waves with her work in Hammer’s To The Devil a Daughter and in the extremely interesting Stay as You Are. There is no question that Tess was Kinski’s big break though and she knew it. She also knew that in accepting the part she would be fulfilling a very personal vision for Polanski. The young German actress knew that Polanski, “had wanted to do it with his wife”, and that indeed in many ways, “Sharon was Tess (and) she was always there, anyway, with him." It was a big challenge for the young actress, who had already spent her life in the shadow of her legendary father Klaus, but Kinski was up for it and she spent an exhausting but dedicated two years preparing for the part. Kinski said of the prep time, “Roman came along and gave me Tess, it was like…it gave me such dignity, you know what I mean? He would be very strict with me and send me to school. And then when we did the movie he said, ‘I really want you to do this for me, because I wanted to do it for my wife and it means so much to me. But the only way you can do the film is to show you’ll learn the accent, So I’m going to send you to England for four, five, six months and when you come back we’ll do the test.’ He gave me a lot of respect. It was all very serious. He was a very severe person, in the best sense.” By the time the cameras began rolling, Nastassia Kinski had become Tess and it remains one of the key roles in her career.
Filmed on location in France throughout a nine-month period just after his masterfully intense and terrifying The Tenant, Polanksi's Tess is his most delicate and hauntingly beautiful work. It is also his most human work and, even though Polanski is still someone recognized as a master of thrillers and the macabre, he brings an incredibly warm and decent aura to Hardy’s monumental novel. Kinski fell into the difficult role with a remarkable grace. She later said, “I’ve always dreamed of being a person like her. She’s not spoiled by the society she moves through. She still stays untouched. She goes through everything for love.” The entire project can indeed be viewed as a work of love, told by a director who by all accounts should have been totally shattered personally and professionally by 1979.
Everything about Tess works, from the remarkably precise pace that never drags in its three hour running time, to the majestic score by Philippe Sarde that manages to place the viewer firmly inside the spirit of Hardy’s unforgettable heroine. Anthony Powell's costume design and the art direction of Jack Stephens are both astonishing attentive in their detail, and 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, leaving Ghislain Cloquet to step in and do the near impossible task of finishing 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.
Sarde’s aforementioned score has perhaps never gotten all the attention it deserves. After the success of their collaboration on The Tenant, Polanski asked Sarde to score Tess and it would turn out to be perhaps the finest soundtrack from the famed composer. Sarde's Oscar nominated score is a moving and at times sweeping work that stands very much apart from a typical period piece soundtrack. There is something remarkably fresh and modern sounding about the work, but it never feels out of place with Polanski's images from the past.
While the behind the scenes players all could constitute great stories themselves, it is the story on screen that remains the most endearing aspect of Tess. For those who might not be familiar with Hardy’s book or any of the filmed adaptations, Tess tells the story of the young Tess Durbeyfield whose drunken father finds out 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 are the ideas of fate and destiny. A particularly long shot early in the film of Kinski wandering down a seemingly endless path points to the film’s key preoccupations. The beautifully rendered shot is one of the most impressive and ominous in all of Polanski's awe-inspiring canon 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 qualities of the screenplay, 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 on the other hand is very much obsessed by his or her position. 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 status, and how much it means to be able to have their way over the lower classes that surround them. 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.
Along with the question of class that is repeatedly brought up, Tess also centers on the 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 goodness and caring, but even towards the end when he takes Tess back we are still given the feeling that his act is ultimately a selfish one. 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. The role would prove life altering for Kinski who said of it, “I’ve changed so much with this part…Tess is such a rich complex character…you find yourself taking on her patience and strength and courage…I’ve always dreamed of being a person like her.” Kinski also recognized how much of Polanski himself could be found in the film, “Roman is a true poet. He is very cruel sometimes too. He just wants the inner part of you. He is every character in the movie. He is Tess and Angel and the countryside and everything.” She summed up the film with, “Tess is about the evilness of a mass people. It is the story of how laws and society can only destroy the purest people, how the truest and purest are trapped by the spiders…Tess is much deeper than revenge. She is always the same, knowing she would die again and again for the same thing.” She finally admitted that, “Tess was my first real confrontation with myself, my own thoughts and feelings…the book (and film) became like a drug to me.”
Nowhere in the film are these issues of class, confrontation, and the split between men and women more noticeable than in the gut wrenching sequence where Tess takes her dead child to the town's priest asking for a church burial. After explaining that she had baptized the baby by herself, and having the priest tell her that she 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 with a so-called 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 is among the greatest moments in either one of their careers.
Tess is also very much a film about nature and our relation to it, specifically how Tess remains part of her God made surroundings while society slips further away. 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 shot of her 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. 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 men’s 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 actually 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 humble 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 Tess through from beginning to end in an endearing performance that is refreshing, tragic and ultimately heartbreaking. Kinski would herself call the Golden Globe winning performance, “the best thing I’ve ever done, not in terms of performance maybe, but the purest and the most beautiful thing.”
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 works of Roman Polanski's career. Nominated for six Academy Awards (including picture and director) and winner of three, Tess was a smashing success. Despite the Golden Globe, Kinski was shamefully ignored at the Oscars, one of the great oversights in the Academy’s history.
Critical reactions were almost universally unanimous in their praise. Many not surprisingly focused on Kinski’s performance. John Coleman would write in The New Statesman, “In her first starring role Nastassia Kinski, whose occasional resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman is startling, does more than might be expected of her: even the West Country accent works a lot of the time...she is far more than a pretty face.", while Tom Milne in the Monthly Film Bulletin would sum it up succulently with, "Kinski (was very much) the right raw material for Hardy's Tess."
Some critics would question Kinski’s accent in the film, while others had problems with her youth and German heritage. It is a tribute to Polanski’s film that repeated viewings bring out the richness of Kinski’s performance in extremely poignant ways. David Denby partially changed his mind about Kinski’s work in the film after re-watching it. Whereas originally he wrote in the pages of New York magazine, "The principal problem with the movie is its star, Nastassia Kinski is a slender, beautiful girl who bears a startling facial resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, unfortunately reminding us how well Bergman would have played a doomed romantic heroine like Tess. In Brief Kinski doesn't have the range for it.”, he would later state, “"The beauty of Nastassia Kinski in Roman Polanski's Tess is so great that, at times, simply gazing upon her loveliness satisfies a moviegoers every longing. Polanski has clearly taught her a great deal...Kinski is like a young aristocrat in an 18th century painting...at the same time, her dark eyes and full, ripe lips (the lower protrudes, just slightly, in a suggestion of sensual hunger) are the features of a passionately alive woman, not a noble idea....Polanski uses her very shrewdly...her confusion is exquisite.”
Perhaps more than anything else, the critical reaction to Kinski in Tess highlights the problem that would haunt her throughout the rest of her career, namely that critics and the public couldn’t get past her beauty no matter how good she was. How ironic that many of the harmful attitudes present in Tess towards women would remain in effect in 1979, and as well in 2009.
The film made its debut on VHS in the mid eighties in a 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 several years in a gorgeous widescreen special edition dvd that features an engrossing ninety minute documentary on the making of the film.
Tess is one of Roman Polanski’s key films and one of the great cinematic meditations on fate, destiny, class struggle, sexism and redemption ever shot. The teaming of Polanski and 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 as they would have been hard pressed to top Tess.
Tess, outside of being one of the most powerful and moving films in modern cinema, stands as a great tribute to the still much missed Sharon Tate. For those who are aware of the film and Polanski’s history, it is hard to watch Tess today without occasionally flashing on those oh so haunting home movies the staggeringly beautiful Tate looking so unbelievably happy with what should have been a wonderful life still in front of her…the work of Polanski, Kinski, Sarde and everyone involved with Tess begins with these images of Sharon Tate, and the film remains a breathtaking and haunting tribute to her.
***This piece was cobbled together from several that I wrote a couple of years ago for Nostalgia Kinky. Please excuse its choppiness.***