Tess (1979)

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, Roman Polanski
Adapted from: Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas hardy
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin, Rosemary Martin, Carolyn Pickles, Suzanna Hamilton
Nominations: Picture, Director – Roman Polanski, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score
Wins: Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design

Discussing any film directed by Roman Polanski can easily lead down a rabbit hole about his rape conviction in the late 1970s.  So let’s get that out of the way.  Here are the basic facts: In March 1977, Polanski was charged with rape (among other charges); he accepted a plea deal to a single lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (i.e., statutory rape); and in early 1978, he fled the United States (also a crime) to avoid possible jailtime and deportation.  Those are the bullet points that are on record and can’t be denied.  The debate, then, comes from whether Polanski’s self-exile/time as a fugitive from the U.S. over the past 42 years is punishment enough, or perhaps it’s the fact that he’s an artist, and (apparently) for some people, that’s trumps raping a 13-year-old girl—see the standing ovation he received when winning Best Director for The Pianist (2002) in absentia at the 75th Academy Awards ceremony.

Whatever one thinks of Polanski the man, it’s interesting that his first film after fleeing from justice includes a scene of an older man raping a 16-year-old girl.  Nevertheless, the focus here is supposed to be Tess, because to paraphrase half a line from Hamlet, the film’s the thing.

As with most characters written by English novelist Thomas Hardy, Tess Durbeyfield lives an emotionally tragic life that plays out like a cruel game of fate.  So many of the terrible events that happen to her in the film’s first half come off as bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She was born into the wrong family, with the wrong name derivation.  She had the wrong father to learn that knowledge, as he chose to send her to “claim kin” with a nearby wealthy family with the same name (which the family bought, thus aren’t related in any way to Tess).  She’s wrongly accused of mocking a fellow employee, which triggers Alec to sweep her away from a confrontation—and into another confrontation in which he rapes her.

Being a woman in Victorian England also leads to other issues.  Despite her having been assaulted by Alec, she suffers through the repercussions of bearing a child out of wedlock, losing the child, and being ridiculed for being a fallen woman.  The double standard is further emphasized on her wedding night to Angel Clare.  He reveals to her that years earlier he had a relationship with an older woman, implied to be sexual and wholly consensual.  Tess forgives him.  However, when she discloses having had a child from being raped, he rejects her, saying she is not the woman he thought (or rather, wanted) her to be.  Then instead of divorcing her, he abandons her.  Before they were married, Tess could more or less do as she liked—she could find work, as she said she would’ve preferred to having been sent to the d’Urbervilles—but as a married woman, she essentially has no rights and is at the whim of her husband.

Despite the dark themes and narrative, there probably has not been a more beautifully photographed film.  The colors are rich and robust without being overwhelming or drawing too much attention away from the story.  Every shot is exquisitely framed and lighted; it’s no exaggeration to say much of the film has a painterly appearance.  And above all, there’s an underscoring of melancholy that simmers beneath each frame that wonderfully highlights the themes and mood.  The seamless work of cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth (who died mid-production) and Ghislain Cloquet stands as a milestone in film photography, and their shared Oscar was more than well deserved.