Tess (1979) – Review by Pauline Kael

Polanski's Tess is Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles under sedation. The film has a penitential attitude toward the suffering that men inflict on women. This Tess becomes a tribute to women's dear weakness.

by Pauline Kael

In Thomas Hardy’s novels, an action or an object or an element in the landscape will suddenly be charged with almost unbearable dramatic tension. These moments, with their mixture of the painful and the beautiful which essayists refer to as Hardy’s plangency, don’t seem to be structured. They don’t arrive like the prepared climaxes of plays; they appear to just happen. ‘Virginia Woolf wrote that with a “quickening of power which we cannot foretell, nor he, it seems, control, a single scene breaks off from the rest.” And we respond to this scene “as if it existed alone and for all time.” Of course, we feel that way because it’s a perfect fusion of the intuitive and the planned. The scene has the quality of inevitability which makes its arrival an impeccable surprise. Hardy’s fated coincidences come at exactly the moment when they’re most needed.
The looseness of Hardy’s novels, the way emotions flare up, and the headlong force of his characters suggest that he should be one of the most adaptable to the screen of all major novelists, and D. W. Griffith swiped from Hardy as freely as he swiped from Dickens. But while Dickens has often been successfully adapted to the screen. Hardy never has been. (The closest to the spirit of his work that anyone has ever got is probably Griffith’s steal from Tess of the D’Urbervilles in Way Down East when Lillian Gish, who has been seduced by a rake, cradles her dead baby in her arms. ) Dickens can be dramatized by reproducing the labyrinthine plots and the knobby characters, with their distinctive modes of addressing each other. Hardy’s plots are simple, and his dialogue is mostly just functional. His characters live for us because of their turbulent thoughts and feelings, and because of the irrational power of sex (and sexual aversion) to blast their hopes and tie their lives in knots. And because they live in a universe that seems to be in a diabolical conspiracy against them. In short, because of their inner conflicts—just what movies have the most difficulty with.
For a reader, the shock of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which was published in 1891, is in its refusal to let Tess be simply a woman at the mercy of men, society, and nature: she’s also at the mercy of her own passions, her pride, and her sense of shame. She’s a strong character—strong enough to fight against the ingrained conviction of the Englishmen of her day that a girl who had been seduced was forever defiled, that she had lost the purity necessary for marriage. The new Roman Polanski film Tess was made in English, and though it was shot in France, it simulates the Wessex of the novel well enough to fool Americans (and maybe even the British). Polanski treats the novel with the utmost fidelity and respect (much of the dialogue is verbatim), the movie is authentically detailed—and there is virtually nothing of Hardy in it. (I mean, of course, nothing of my Hardy; the film may be an accurate representation of Polanski’s Hardy, and perhaps of some other people’s.) In the movie, Tess (Nastassia Kinski) is strictly a victim of men and social conventions. The film takes a sympathetic, feminist position toward her—sympathetic, I think, in a narrow and demeaning sense. Because if what happens to Tess is all the fault of men, she is reduced as a character. This Tess isn’t a protagonist; she is merely a hapless, frail creature, buffeted by circumstances. Hardy wasn’t beating his breast, proclaiming how guilty men were for the fate of women (he saw the characters in the round). The movie is a sustained feat of male breast-beating, a costume version of An Unmarried Woman—only it goes back to An Unmarried Mother.
Tess is textured and smooth and even, with lateral compositions subtly flowing into each other. The sequences are beautifully structured, and the craftsmanship is hypnotic. You don’t want to leave, but you’re watching nothing. Those quickening moments that, when you’re reading the book, may make you feel that your heart will stop pass by without a ripple; the movie just keeps going, quietly, steadily. There’s a visual passion in Hardy when he describes the countryside. The earth turns and you can feel the terror that every living creature is subject to. Polanski’s tastefully cropped compositions and unvaried pacing make nature proper. The picture is tame, it’s artistic—a series of leisurely Barbizon School landscapes. In Hardy, when the characters blurt out more than they should or some chance incident causes them to do something unaccountably wrongheaded, you can feel the danger building, and you’re shaken by it. There’s no danger in this picture; it’s serene.
Nastassia Kinski, who was seventeen when the movie was shot, is a lovely child-woman, and she gives a delicate, meticulous performance. She doesn’t do anything jarring; she may even be a little too sensitive—she’s far from a robust English country girl. English is not her native language; she manages something close (I assume) to the correct West Country sounds, but in a small, uninflected schoolgirl voice. And her mouth is not the mouth of someone who grew up speaking English; she has a spooky resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman, and her mouth forms words in a similar foreign way. Bergman, though, had her deep, emotionally expressive voice, right from the start. Kinski is a doll-like, jeune fille Bergman, a soft gamine. This Tess never grows up; when she’s a rich man’s fancy woman, she’s still a child. It’s a problem similar to the one that Sissy Spacek (who is in her thirties) had in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Spacek’s shy, naughty smiles were enchanting when she was supposed to be a thirteen-year-old, but when she was supposed to be a grown woman she looked like a kid dressed up in her mother’s clothes and wig. Kinski isn’t rooted in the earth of any country; she’s a hothouse flower—a fairy-tale waif, with puffy, slightly parted lips as an emblem of the carnal world. And, as sometimes happens when an actress speaks in a language that isn’t her own, her body doesn’t express what her words say; this makes her seem withdrawn, passive, even a trace bovine—which could also be appealing to modern audiences.
Nastassia Kinski’s Tess is so pure a sufferer that men who might take a poke at their wives without remorse can get teary-eyed about her. Her immaturity fits Polanski’s romantic view of victimization. The story hasn’t been dramatized (it’s far less dramatic than the book)—it has been orchestrated. The two men in Tess’s life—Alec (Leigh Lawson), who “takes advantage” of her, and Angel Clare (Peter Firth), the parson’s son, who cannot forgive her for having been taken advantage of—are very well played, but their individual scenes blur. Everything is subdued, blended. I remember discussions with school friends about these two men—talking about Tess’s physical anger at poor Alec, talking about the priggish, snobby Angel. The movie is so refined that these men don’t have clear enough features for them to be argued about. They are merely the men who do Tess wrong and can never make up for it, though each, in his own way, tries. The early scene in which Parson Tringham (Tony Church) explains to Jack Durbeyfield (John Collin) that he is really Sir John D’Urberville has the boisterousness and anger and all those complicated mixed emotions that the picture loses whenever sweet, languishing Tess is the focal point. The marginal characters—the drunken Durbeyfield especially—are more alive than the central ones. It’s a remarkably fine cast; Dairyman Crick and the dairymaids are wonderful. It’s Nastassia Kinski, beautiful as she is, and affecting, too, who has the least energy and the least strength.
Hardy’s account is raw and sexual; Polanski’s movie is lush, ripe, settled. When you watch sweet Nastassia, you almost forget that Tess is a killer—in more than one sense, and including the literal one. Tess kills the man who took her virginity—not because he’s a bad fellow (he has never meant her any harm, and he has been supporting her and her mother and brothers and sisters) but because she doesn’t love him and she does love someone else. She kills him self-righteously, and the movie makes us feel that she’s a tender, innocent, wronged creature. Reading Hardy, you see Tess’s indomitability in a complex, frightening light. You can’t help being upset by the novel; it’s all morally open for you to puzzle over. And you can’t help being appalled by the irrational acts committed in the name of love. But Polanski, who has been such a wizard at perversity, and whose specialty was characters in a double bind, goes soft. He doesn’t show us Tess’s furious, vengeful act—stabbing the man who penetrated her, The next scenes drift right past it without the emotional ante being raised. Polanski’s Tess is Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles under sedation. The film has a penitential attitude toward the suffering that men inflict on women. This Tess becomes a tribute to women’s dear weakness.

The New Yorker, February 2, 1981


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