Judge Gordon Sullivan is writing poetry again.
As timely today as the day it was written.
I was surprised once, when I picked up the collected poetry of Thomas Hardy. I was first surprised that it was such a thick volume—Hardy is primarily known as a novelist in the canon of British literature—but then even more surprised when the editors of the volume discussed the improvements to this edition, which included resetting all the type. It seems that not only was Hardy a poet, but he was such a popular poet that his collected poems went into so many editions that the plates used to print the work were wearing away. After twenty-plus editions, letters were dropping away at the ends of lines, others disappearing, all because Hardy's poetry was so well-regarded. Naturally I looked into it further. I was even more surprised to discover that Hardy—a novelist famous for masterpieces like Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles—didn't publish a collection of poems until after his final novel Jude the Obscure. Some people argue that Hardy's turn to poetry was a response to the negative reception of Jude, but looking at Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, it's hard not to get the sense that Hardy rode the particular horse of realist fiction as far as he could.
In stark contrast to Hardy, Roman Polanski is a director who has never seemed to settle into one mode of storytelling. Though they share a similar sensibility in many ways, it would be harder to find a director with three more distinctive features under their belt than The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary's Baby, and Chinatown. And yet, Polanski was drawn to Hardy's penultimate novel, and the conjunction of source, director and star produced a fascinating adaptation, Tess. Criterion have done their usual excellent job bringing Polanski's film to hi-def for Tess (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski, Cat People) is sent to the home of her distant relatives, the d'Urbervilles, in the hopes that she might impose upon them to increase her station. What she doesn't know is that the name d'Urberville has been sold to a wealthy Northern family who hope to scrub their grubby industrial past away with a respectable familial association. Tess is given a poor job out of charity by Alec d'Uberberville (Leigh Lawson, Casanova), by whom she is raped. Tess flees back home and into the arms of a preacher's son, Angel (Peter Firth, The Hunt for Red October). Tess and Angel are in love, but Tess' past can't stop getting in the way.
One of the strange things about Roman Polanski's filmography up to and including Tess is how often he has a woman protagonist. In fact, Chinatown sticks out like a sore thumb simply because it's a long, dramatic film that almost exclusively stays with its main male character . Otherwise, viewers have a handful of films about groups of people (Knife in the Water, Fearless Vampire Killers, and Cul-de-Sac) or the female-lead example of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and Tess.
Put in this context, it's not hard to see what would draw Polanski to the source novel. Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby are both about the contortions that women must perform to fit into society. More importantly, these previous films are about the tragic results of such contortions: madness and seduction by evil. Tess simply dials back the time eighty years and provides another take on this story. Tess is a victim of circumstance, preyed upon by a feckless playboy and then rejected by a man unable to see past her past. What Tess gains Polanski, however, is the ability to tell this story free from the Freudian trappings of Repulsion and the Satanic overtones (and youth-culture associations) of Rosemary's Baby. I don't quite want to say this makes the tragedy more pure, but it does point the finger a little farther away from the women in prior Polanski films, who seemed to participate a bit more in their own destruction.
It's not historically accurate to say that with Tess Polanski "discovered" his star Nastassja Kinksi. She is the daughter of the (in)famous Klaus Kinski, and had appeared in a handful of films before Tess. And yet, it's hard to imagine her being cast in One from the Heart or Cat People if Polanski hadn't first bathed her in the beautiful light that he does in Tess. Perhaps its more accurate to say he lights Kinski to accentuate her natural glow. I can't say that Kinski is always the most convincing actress—I don't know if it's a language difficulty, or the roles she chooses—but even when I'm unconvinced she's impossible not to watch. She's perfectly cast as Tess. Part of Hardy's point with the novel is the ways in which class and gender oppression work together; Tess is beautiful, but a peasant and her "betters" take advantage of that. Kinski is obviously physically beautiful, but it's her vulnerability that stands out in Tess as she's used and abused by the men in her life.
Finally, the film is simply beautiful to look at. Given that Polanski wouldn't make another classic film for over two decades (The Pianist in 2002), it's hard not to read Tess as the passing of a certain era. Probably due to lingering legal issues and funding concerns, Polanski didn't have the budgets to pull off the period extravagance of Tess for most of the eighties and nineties. Still, Tess is something special; gorgeous lighting, perfect settings, and well-costumed actors abound. I could see turning the sound off and simply appreciating Tess as a kind of moving painting.
Which brings us, finally, to Criterion's release of Tess (Blu-ray), which is excellent. A three-disc affair, featuring a Blu-ray disc and two DVDs (which contain everything on the Blu-ray), Tess simply shines in high-definition. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is gorgeous. Though the film isn't "sharp" in the traditional sense, this transfer showcases fine detail in the film's grain structure. The painterly, filmic quality of the original is preserved, especially in the glowing colors that permeate the landscape. Black levels are also consistent and impressive throughout. I can detect no serious artefacts or other digital manipulation. The film gets a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack that's lush and beautiful. Dialogue is clean and clear, but the film's score really showcases the rich detail that the lossless format supports. The surround upgrade is a bit unnecessary for this kind of period piece, but overall the track is strong.
Extras star with a 75-minute making-of documentary broken up into three parts, "Novel to Screen," "Filming Tess," and "Tess: The Experience." These include contributions from Polanski, his cast and crew, as well as Hardy scholars, all talking about the film and its production. A more recent documentary, "Once Upon a Time…Tess" from 2006 is also included. It runs a bit less than an hour and includes a number of the same participants from the earlier doc. There's also a vintage interview from 1979 with Polanski on The South Bank Show that runs an hour, and another from Cine, a French show that covers the making of the film. Though there are natural redundancies in the material, its' a wealth of info about a well-regarded adaptation. The film's trailer is also included. The usual Criterion booklet handsomely reproduces images from the film and includes a fine essay by Colin MacCabe on the film. The extras are made all the more impressive given this is Criterion's fifth Polanski release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't deny that Tess is a long film at three hours, and for those who want cracking action, there's precious little to be found. There's also something a little disconcerting about watching Tess in light of Polanski's own past. It's the first film he directed after his conviction for unlawful sex with a minor, and it's hard for me not to feel a bit queasy at the parallels between Polanski's abuse of power and Alec d'Urberville's.
Tess is a gorgeous film adapted from an amazing novel by a director in full command of his cinematic faculties. Fans of the novel and Polanski will readily forgive the lengthy running time. Criterion has outdone itself again, providing a beautiful restoration and presentation of the film along with a wealthy selection of extras.
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