The Criterion Voyages (Spine #697): Tess — Beautiful Tale of Tragedy from Roman Polanski

By Dan Skip Allen

Roman Polanski is a director known for Chinatown and The Pianist, the latter of which won three Academy Awards: for Adrian Brody for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director for Polanski, and Best Writing for Ronald Harwood. His films have spanned over five decades. He is considered a prolific director. The problem is his personal life outside of his filmmaking career has overshadowed his career. The death of Sharon Tate has been a situation that has driven him to make the film Tess. He was given the book by her and she was originally supposed to play the role.

Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is a young woman who lives with her parent’s brothers and sisters in squalor in France. A happenstance meeting between her father and a passerby on the road causes a series of events. Her father says their family name is technically wrong. Even though they’ve been known as the Durbeyfields now they are part of the D’urbervilles, a family of much better worth. He sends Tess off to get involved with the D’urbervilles so she can get them to help her family. This meeting of Tess and the D’urbervilles introduces her to a very pretty debonair man known as Alec D’urberville (Lee Lawson). She would have a very tragic encounter with him. The rest of her life would be forever affected by this man and event.

Polanski would use this film as a kind of therapy for himself and the world. It would become a meta story before meta-ness was a thing. Tess is a very tragic character that has to deal with a very hard life. She can’t find love no matter how much she does to achieve it herself. Her life is that of a woman who toils away on various jobs, but nothing she does seems to work out for her. Even when she finally takes things into her own hands they don’t work out for her. Polanski adapts this story so people who know his own story can relate to it on a better level. That being said, it’s a masterpiece of filmmaking from him.

Tess is a film that had me getting very emotional because of its story and the difficult situation she found herself in regarding her relationships between Alec D’urberville and Angel Clare (Peter Firth). She just wanted happiness and to be with a man and raise a family. What more could any woman want? She couldn’t even have that and it’s pretty sad. Tess of the D’urbervilles is such a tragic story, but it’s brought to the screen so perfectly by Polanski and the others I mentioned. It’s a film that isn’t talked about much in Polanski’s filmography or film from 1980, but it’s well worth the watch and the Criterion edition is filled with extra features and interviews.

The crafts in Tess are extraordinary, specifically the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth. The French countryside is brought to life very vividly. There is fog and damp conditions that help create a beautiful but in the camera. The art direction and set direction were other things about the film that looked so good. Pierre Guffroy and Jack Stephens created a world where this film made sense and was very believable in the context of the story. The costumes by Anthony Powell we’re also superb. These characters looked like they were dressed perfectly for this world and film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: