19th century novelists are fond of epigraphs. 20th century filmmakers are fond of 19th century novels. Roman Polanski’s Tess might more accurately be called: ‘Tess, or, how to make a subtle movie out a violent book.’ The book, advertised as the story of a ‘pure woman’ (raped, abandoned) ‘faithfully presented’ (romanticized) is the work of Thomas ‘Teen Angst’ Hardy whose penchant for tales of misery and sex marks him a special place in the canon. Both the sex and the misery Polanski faithfully preserves, if less explicitly than Hardy’s text, or the culture of the ’70s, calls for. But what really sells Tess for a modern audience has nothing to do with Hardy, or at least very little.
Polanski made Tess in the ten-year wake of one of the more disturbing events of his life, and as such, its subtext is rampant. One doesn’t want to read to much into its dedication (‘to Sharon‘), but at the same time it’s hard not to think of when trying to figure out why a director who would become famous for graphically disturbing films would choose a pastoral as his subject matter. Tess’s fate eerily reflects Sharon’s, but without the gruesome details that Hardy–and life–gave to the originals. Hardy’s story is given something by Polanski’s restraint, and Polanski seems, in his obsessive faithfulness to the text, somewhat in awe of Hardy.
But like Tess and Angel’s, it’s not a perfect union: there are problems. Miscasting is a problem. Peter Firth’s Angel Clare is quite lackluster, Natassja Kinski a bit too wispy for the strong-framed Tess (strong enough at any rate to bear a child and go back to work in the fields practically the next day). The lapses in time are a problem. There’s no easy way to show Tess’s character development except by narration–and despite the three hours of film that Tess amounts to, her progressions from family caretaker to field hand to poultry farmer to mistress to milkmaid and back to field hand are still a bit jumpy.
Also you really miss the things you’ve come to expect from watching later, weirder Polanski. The dripping from the ceiling as substitute for showing a scene of murder was a nice touch, even if one would have like to see his open-eyed corpse dripping blood in bed, a knife buried to the hilt in his breast. Likewise the decision not to show the final hanging, descriptions of which are Hardy’s trademark–victims with glazed eyes and neck bruises the color of an ‘unripe blackberry‘.
Still it must be said that Tess is gorgeous, and beautifully circular in a way that so many stories are not–from the wraparound first and last scenes of girls in pagan dress, to the baptism and the fated night at Stonehenge. Not to mention summarizing phrases that, if not straight from Hardy, might as well be–as when Alec tracks down the destitute Tess to ask her:
‘What strange attraction does misery hold for you?’
Good question. And one which might well be directed at Hardy himself. For Polanski, it’s obvious–misery breeds a kind of beauty, at least in interpretation, and of this philosophy Tess may be his greatest example.