Pros: the look, the performances
the pace, the hopelessness, the real-life resonances
I have not read a single Thomas Hardy novel. I probably read a few of his poems in my senior year of high school. If so, they left no lasting impression on me. Hardy’s 1892 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented was his biggest financial success during his lifetime and is his bestselling title on Amazon (both Kindle and paper), ahead of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude, the Obscure.
My reading of 19th-century fiction is generally spotty, but it’s a bit surprising to me that I did not see Roman Polanski’s 1979 film adaptation, titled simply “Tess” (having been born in Paris and living there then and now, I’d guess that Polanski balked at the redundancy of “of the d’”). I remember being puzzled but not dismayed by his previous film “The Tenant” (in which he played the title role) and I loved John Schleisinger’s 1967 adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with a luminous Julie Christie and a dashing cad played in scarlet uniform by Terrence Stamp.
I was not and am not boycotting Polanski films and may get around to elaborating my views about his most recent one, “The Ghost Writer,” of which there was a DVD release earlier this month. Though I try not to watch movies through the lens of the biographies of their makers, attempting to take the French view,* this is as difficult in the case of “Tess” as it was in the case of “The Pianist.”
If there is anyone who does not know: Polanski survived as a fugitive from Nazi extermination, as his mother did not, and pled guilty to statutory rape in California and fled the country on the eve of a judge (who had been guilty of multiple instances of misconduct in the case—according to the prosecutor, not just the defense lawyer) reneging on the plea bargain. Polanski remains a fugitive from justice (and/or the California judicial system).
The history of being a fugitive is not lacking with echoes in Tess fleeing calumny, but the aspect that was impossible to wall off while I was watching the movie was that the naïve young title character, Tess Durbeyfield, (played by a 17- or 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski, who was sexually involved with Polanski before that) is raped by and impregnated by her “cousin” Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson). This disgrace leads her future husband (Peter Firth) to abandon her when he learns of it (on the wedding night), blocks the love of the lives of both Tess and her husband, and leads to murder and hanging.
Polanski was telling the tragic story of a young woman. The rapist (“statutory” and more, just like Polanski himself) is worldly and more than a little arrogant in taking his pleasure from a young woman who was pretty much thrust into his path by greedy parents. Can Polanski have failed to see parallels and been attempting to make amends of sorts through his art?
Real-life interference is even stronger in that Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, had recommended he consider directing her in the title role of an adaptation of the book shortly before she was murdered (pregnant with Polanski’s child) in the Manson massacre. The movie is dedicated “To Sharon,” and its star (daughter of German mandman actor Klaus Kinski) had taken her place both in the director’s bed and in playing Tess, “a victim of her own provocative beauty,” to borrow from advertising copy, which also included the provocative "She was born into a world where they called it seduction, not rape.” Whew! And there is the class difference (the rich preying on the young if not invariably innocent less well-off with the complicity of parents sacrificing the innocence or honor of daughters in expectation of economic gain from commodifying the beauty of their daughters) not only in Tess and Alec, Roman and the 13-year-old, and in the movie in which Polanski directed Tate, “The Fearless Vampire Killer.” How can viewers focus on reel life with so many echoes of real life? I couldn't.
Swinging back to the very beginning of the movie and explaining the “scare quotes” around “cousin” above, Tess’s drunkard father John Durbeyfield (John Collin) learns in the first scene that he is descended from the Norman lords d'Urberville, some of whom are entombed in the local church. The local historian remarks on how the mighty have fallen, but his telling John about his research gives John and his wife (Rosemary Martin) delusions of grandeur. (I’m pretty sure that, like Zola, Hardy himself was influenced by widespread ideas of that era about degeneration. Both portrayed inexorable grinding down of the innocent by the rich and the sociocultural system of condemning female sexuality that often involves blaming the victim.)
Having learned that “Durbeyfield” is a corruption (Anglicization?) of “d'Urberville,” the suddenly haughty parents send Tess off to call on the resident d'Urberville. Alec is not, in fact, kin, having bought the coat of arms and name.
Though having intimated a lot about the plot, I will not discuss the romances and degradations that follow the rape/seduction. I think that the leads (Kinski, Firth, Lawson) are all impressive and look their Victorian parts.
Not having read the novel, I don’t know what was pruned, but from my limited experience with novels from that era, I have no doubt that there was much that could have been. From the movie, some of the lingering beautiful countryside shots could have been excised with no loss. The story does not need 172 minutes to tell!
The story is quite clear, and the locations, mostly in Brittany plus some in Normandy, look right. (In a bonus feature someone explains that they could not find locations in Somerset that looked like late-19th-century Somerset, but could in Brittany.) I found the vintage farm machinery (from the dawn of mechanized agriculture) fascinating to watch, too.
The movie won Oscars for costume design, art direction/set decoration, and cinematography (Ghislain Cloquet [Au hasard Balthazar] shot most of the movie after Geoffrey Unsworth [Becket, Cabaret, 2001] died). It was nominated for its music score, direction, and as best picture, as well. It also received Cesars for picture, direction, and cinematography, but lost to the quite superb production design of Ariane Mnouchkine’s “Molière”).
The DVD bonus features raise my 3.5 rating of the movie to 4 stars. The tripartite “making of” feature runs a total of 70 minutes and includes insightful discussions from Kinski, Polanski, dialogue-writer John Brownjohn (who lived only a few yards from the pub that John Durbeyfied frequented, though that is not why he was hired), and Claude Berri, who produced “Tess” and directed an even better movie about rural grinding down of an innocent "Jean de Florette" (and its sequel in which "Manon of the Springs" prevails, which is very un-Hardy-like).
©2010, Stephen O. Murray
* In contrasting the Russian view in an essay in Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin chracterized the prototypically French view that the work of artists and craftspersons can and should be evaluated without consideration of the character of the artists and craftpersons:
"The artist's private life is of no more concern to the public life of a carpenter. If you order a table, you are not interested in whether the carpenter has a good motive for making it or not; or whether he lives on good terms with his wife and children. And to say of a carpenter that his table must in some way be degraded or decadent, because his morality is degraded or decadent, would be regarded as bigoted, or, indeed, silly; certainly as a grotesque criticism of his work as a carpenter." Take Louis-Ferdinand Céline's recognition as one of the greatest of France's writers, for instance. I am, alas, more "Russian," less "French" than I think I should be. I grew up in very moralistic WASP Midwestern US environment not all that unlike the one that wore down and crushed Tess, and am not totally in accord with Pierre Bourdieu about "the biographical illusion."