Tess: Criterion Collection
March 18, 2014
Based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess (1979) ended a prolific decade of memorable films for Roman Polanski who, at this point in his career, had been exiled to Europe due to legal problems in the United States. The film featured a breakthrough performance by an absolutely radiant Nastassja Kinski and proved to be one of the finest adaptations of Hardy’s novels.
When John and Joan Durbeyfield (Collin and Martin) hear a rumor that their family may come from the same line as the aristocratic d’Urbervilles, they send their daughter Tess (Kinski) to their estate. It seems like both an altruistic and opportunistic move with young Tess as the innocent pawn between the two families. Tess makes enough of an impression that she’s offered a job at the d’Urbervilles’ dairy farm where she learns the lay of the land, both figuratively and literally. This includes the early reveal that these d’Urbervilles bought the name when they moved to this part of the country.
The d’Urbervilles live on an estate lush with vegetation of all kinds that Polanski captures with loving detail so that we are bewitched by its charms. This continues for most of the first half of the film with images like a forest at dusk, stunning golden beams of light are visible in the background. Tess features some of the most beautifully shot pastoral scenes this side of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) – so rich in texture that the environment is almost tangible, transporting us instantly back to Victorian times.
Kinski’s Tess is an angelic, tragic figure who cannot find solace in either family or even the local clergyman. She endures the death of her very young child with fierce resolve, trying to survive during a time when women were subservient to men. With her impossibly gorgeous European features, Kinski is even more sympathetic as Tess who is basically used by the two most significant men in her life. Polanski’s camera absolutely loves her with certain shots that look like they came right out of a classical painting. It was the start of a fascinating run of roles for the actress, which included working with the likes of Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) and Paul Schrader (Cat People).
Tess is an exquisitely shot film where Polanski masterfully juxtaposes beautiful elements with dark realism, which anchors the more ethereal components. The visuals are anchored by an achingly tender performance by Kinski. The result is a sensual, heartbreaking adaptation of Hardy’s novel. It is rooted in the downbeat realism that was prevalent during the 1970s and that would soon disappear during the upwardly mobile 1980s (although, not from Polanski’s films). Polanski’s films share a pessimistic view of the world and this is certainly evident with Tess whose heroine is punished by a cruel, uncaring society.
This Blu-Ray transfer gives the skin tones a nice, warm look and features lots of rich detail in every stunningly composed frame.
“Cine Regards” is a 48-minute episode of a 1979 French television program with behind-the-scenes footage of Tess being made. We see Polanski at work on location with the cast and crew, which gives us some insight into his methods. He is also interviewed and talks about his approach to the material and filmmaking.
“Once Upon a Time … Tess” is an impressive 52-minute retrospective documentary made in 2006. Key cast and crew members are interviewed with Polanski talking about what drew him to Hardy’s novel. He also speaks admiringly of his crew and the wonderful atmosphere during filming. Kinski loved the novel and identified with the character of Tess. This is an excellent, in-depth look at how Tess came together.
“On the Making of Tess” consists of three featurettes made in 2004 about various aspects of the film. The first one examines the origins, like how Sharon Tate gave Polanski a copy of the book before she died. It provides backstory to Hardy and his novel. The second featurette takes a look at principal photography with key cast and crew members telling filming anecdotes about how special it was to be involved. Finally, Polanski and co. reflect on the experience of making Tess and, not surprisingly, speak highly of the production.
“The South Bank Show” is a 1979 episode of this British chat show with Polanski interviewed about his career and Tess. He explains why he cast Kinski, why he filmed it in France and so on. The director speaks passionately of his childhood and his love of cinema.
Finally, there is a trailer.