Friday, May 15, 2009

Film #124: Tess

I prefer watching my fiction to reading it (non-fiction tomes are my reading predilection), so it takes quite a movie to whallop me into reading the book upon which it's based. But when I first saw Roman Polanski's 1980 masterpiece Tess on the big screen upon its release, I rushed out to snap up Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'ubervilles, published in 1891. It's a rush of a tale--downbeat and downhearted--that's remains floral in emotion and description, telling the story of the shy, comely title character (played by Nastassja Kinski), the daughter of an harried Irish drunkard who, when invited to work for a distant and wealthy relative, catches the eye of her well-to-do cousin (Leigh Lawson), a cocky cad who tries to goad Tess into romance (the disappointing results lead him to a nighttime act of vengeance). Even so, Tess continues her daily duties, milking cows and working the fields, when she meets the farmhand, Angel Claire (Peter Firth), who's her hauntingly innocent romantic ideal. Polanski's surprising, gentle film documents this tragic triangle with a wellspring of gorgeous images--it's the director's most visually poetic work. From the gaggle of white-dressed dancing girls parading madly about the opening scene, to the stunning close-up of Tess reluctantly eating a strawberry fed to her by that man, to the sunrise denouement set at Stonehenge, there's plenty of elegance in which to bathe.

Polanski's then-19-year-old lover Kinski made the jump from awful European B-movies like To the Devil...A Daughter to this picturesque opus with deft ease. Even if Polanski hadn't been exiled to Europe after his Chinatown-era legal troubles, he would have had a difficult time finding an ingenue equally able to assay this role. Actually, it's not that Kinski's performance itself is so accomplished; it's just that she's so resolutely stunning to look at that you can't tear your eyes away. With her pouty lips, blank-slate stare, and naive underplaying, Kinski is an immensely attractive anchor for this massively-scaled movie; she need only be so beautiful that men would kill or die for her, and this she achieves. Polanski dedicated Tess to his one-time wife Sharon Tate (murdered in 1969 by the Manson family), and in doing so, poured untold amounts of love, past and present, into his work. After decades of abrasive, claustrophobic films, during what very likely could have been one of the more ennui-filled episodes of the troubled director's life, Polanski seems to be taking a long-needed walk through a downy meadow. Working from an adaptation co-written by Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, Polanski finds both the winsomeness and the horror in Hardy's novel and transmits it to screen undisturbed.

The supporting cast--the peaceful Firth, the hissable Lawson, John Collin as Tess' besotted father, and Susanna Hamilton as her best friend Izz, among others--is superb. And the picture won three well-deserved Oscars: for Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens' opulent art direction, Anthony Powell's sumptuous costumes, and the delectible cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Cabaret) and Ghislain Cloquet (Cloquet took over camera duties after Unsworth died mid-production). Philippe Sarde's majestic, well-arranged score was nominated for the Oscar, but lost to Georges Delarue's superior music backing A Little Romance, but that didn't stop the Tess soundtrack from taking its place on my turntable regularly in the early '80s. This unmissable, airy yet depressing costume drama was clearly produced by Claude Berri, who would go on to direct the similarly opulent late-1980s epic Jean De Florette / Manon of the Springs. 

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