Sunday, 21 April 2013


Roman Polanski’s wistful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles was a languorous, beautifully and meticulously filmed three hour attempt by the high profile Polish film director, to close the book on a difficult and still controversial chapter in his personal life, with the idyllic (and unprecedented) nine months he and his ‘traveling circus’ of a crew spent shooting the movie all around north-west France, becoming the therapeutic healing balm to a nightmarish series of events that began many years before, in the early hours of the morning on the 9th August, 1969, with the murder of Polanski’s young wife Sharon Tate and several friends, whose bodies were subsequently found in the newlywed couple’s Bel Air home in the Hollywood Hills, each having been made the victim of a senseless murder spree perpetrated by followers of the infamous cult leader, Charles Manson.
The unimaginable trauma of this dire event, and the press intrusion and psychological torment which accompanied it, came before the making of three of the director’s darkest cinematic masterpieces, which each appeared over the course of the next half decade or so (with the offbeat sex comedy What? (1972) sandwiched somewhat uncomfortably in between). A phantasmagorical adaptation of Macbeth (1971) preceded the jaundiced ‘30s set thriller, Chinatown (1974) and Polanski’s surrealist depiction of a haunted paranoid’s descent into utter madness that was the box office failure The Tenant (1976), each adding another florid brush struck to a public perception of Polanski’s work that now more than ever was inclined to characterise it as but a heightened reflection of the director’s own internal, psychologically fractured mental state. Regardless of how much truth may have been contained within this Gothic formulation, the events of 10th March, 1977, and of February the following year, were to add yet more lethal petrol to Polanski’s already flammable public persona, and the tinderbox was about to ignite in catastrophic fashion.

Serious charges of sexual misconduct with a thirteen-year-old girl were filed against the director, in a shocking case which became an even bigger cause célèbre for its being alleged to have taken place in the home of Jack Nicholson, with the actress Anjelica Huston potentially set to be included as a witness in any subsequent court case. The most horrifying of the initial offences included charges of drugging and raping a minor, but these were eventually commuted to a single count of unlawful sexual intercourse. The scandal induced a sensational worldwide media storm, with the quixotic, celebrity-courting 71 year-old Judge put in charge of the case, Laurence J Rittenband, holding court at its centre. Polanski at first attempted to continue work on his next project while legal proceedings took their due course; he began preliminary pre-production on The Hurricane for producer Dino De Laurentiis, a film which was eventually to be directed by Jan Stroller.  But after being warned by Hollywood producer Howard Koch about threats that had been overheard being publicly issued by the alarmingly headline-hungry Rittenband, pertaining to the custodial fate the judge apparently already had in store for the director, Polanski skipped bale and flew out of the country on the next plane, first heading to London and then to Paris in order to evade any future attempts to have him extradited back to the states to face the charges which still, to this day, stand unanswered.

While the world debated the director’s shameless flight from his judicial reckoning, the man himself, now low on finances after this hastily arranged escape, wasted little time in launching work on another film -- a project he’d been discussing with the French producer, actor and director Claude Berri on and off for some time. Polanski put together his masterful version of Thomas Hardy’s most popular novel with only a mere four months of preplanning before shooting began in locations dotted all over Normandy and Brittany. These locations were used as stand-ins for Hardy’s fictional English county of Wessex, firstly because Polanski could not go to England to shoot the film since an extradition agreement existed between the UK and the US; but also because production designer Pierre Guffroy found that the 19th Century Dorset portrayed in the novel had largely disappeared in Britain thanks to the modern practise of monoculture now favoured in British farming, which had completely transformed the landscape of the area.  

When Tess was at last premiered in the United States in December 1980 to great acclaim (later picking up three Academy Awards from a total of six nominations at the following 1981 ceremony), after having previously endured an eighteen month delay during which time the film had suffered a critical mauling in Germany and had struggled even to find a suitable distributor elsewhere, many critics saw this respectful, highly faithful adaptation of one of the great classics of English literature (which effortlessly seemed to capture the mood of Hardy’s lyrical strain of novelised, pastoral West Country melancholia so perfectly) as being a radical departure for Polanski, in a filmography whose subject matter had previously been dominated since its very inception by the forbidding extremities of the macabre and the perverse.

This was a somewhat odd perception in retrospect: despite its measured, gentle visual evocation of a tourist  ‘biscuit tin’ version of 19th century Dorset, this was still a picturesque rural landscape that was caught on the cusp of change by the rapid encroachment of modernity through industrialisation and other new agricultural practises of the age, even as its seasons are depicted continuing to turn with a seemingly time-honoured constancy; and among all nine of the major feature films Polanski had overseen up to that point since Knife in the Water in 1962, Tess was clearly the most personal of them all for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, with its source text already a rich study in the enigma and pliability of identity and interpretation of motive, elucidated here in a context in which traditional social mores and beliefs as well as the material landscape are shown equally subject to changeability and in states of constant flux, there is an obvious sense in which Hardy’s sorrowful account of his heroine’s incremental decline (in the eyes of Victorian convention) from pure-born child of nature to fallen woman and wanton murderer – a journey composed of a series of events that are determined by combinations of chance factors which are in turn influenced by the vagaries of norms bound by class factors and economic and social hierarchies  --  mirrors elements of Polanski’s own situation: the novel’s early sections hinge on ambiguities that are inherent in the interpretation of a pivotal incident that Hardy, in the many differing versions of it that were drafted over several years (included in serialised formats for periodicals, short sketches published separately, and the various later reprinted three volume editions), deliberately renders opaque, hindering our ability to reach a definitive judgement on what exactly happened and how it came about. This is the sequence in which rakish Nouveau Riche aristocrat Alec Stokes-d'Urberville, either rapes or seduces (or much more likely something somewhere in between) his faux cousin in the woodlands near the Wessex countryside estate to which she had earlier been sent by her impoverished parents to work as a poultry keeper in order to help pay for a new horse for the family business.

In Hardy’s account, the cigar flourishing Alec is neither as honourable and trustworthy as his social position allows him to pretend to be, nor the completely unrepentant, virgin-deflowering rogue of traditional folklore; and Tess Durbeyfield, in her simultaneous embodiment and rejection of different elements of the naturalistic ‘earth mother’ stereotype favoured for her by contemporary Victorian society at large (and later wholeheartedly embraced by the idealistic parson’s son Angel Clare, whom Tess is to fall in love with and marry with tragic consequence), is neither wholly to blame nor entirely non-complicit in the act. The extent to which each accepts the burden of their respective ‘roles’ and how they choose to view themselves and each other’s role in the equation of blame is one of the core subjects of a text in which the characters are constantly assessing and re-assessing their responses to each other from differing social vantage points, and in view of differing class assumptions and world views.

The interplay between the position of economic privilege maintained by Alec as part of the new Victorian business class and the status of the semi-educated agricultural labourer class to which Tess belongs, positions major aspects of these responses and the manner in which the couple deal with subsequent events. One of the major themes of the novel, summed up in the words of Margaret R. Higonnet in her introduction to the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of Hardy’s text, centres on its questioning of the “stereotypes, classifications and conventions that dictate interpretations of human character.” As social conditions in town and country are seen to shift at the end of the nineteenth century, so too do the range of identities available to their subjects; as a result, belief influences motive and action, the interpretations of each being dependent on the social and cultural positions from which one necessarily attempts to understand them.

Hardy’s novel went through many transformations between its various editions, initially, mostly as a result of contemporary Victorian moral squeamishness. Originally planned in instalments for the newspaper syndication firm Tillotson and Son, after a contract had been agreed in advance to the fee of 1,000 guineas, the firm declined to publish the first episode Hardy supplied for them unless the author agreed to make substantial changes and deletions. At this stage Hardy was unwilling to make any alterations to the text and was content simply for the contract to be annulled. Instead, he settled on the idea of offering the work to one of the many monthly periodicals then in circulation, and bowdlerising it himself in order to better suit the sensibilities of middle class family consumption, confident that his intended version could be restored at a later date -- namely when it came to his publishing the three volume ‘triple-decker’ edition, as was the usual custom of the day in the publishing world. Even so, two periodicals, Murray’s Magazine and Macmillan’s Magazine, each rejected the story; the former on the grounds of ‘its frequent and detailed reference to immoral situations’ and the latter on the grounds that ‘it might give offence.’ At this point Hardy had already secured a deal with the Graphic and had been merely reassuring himself that the story in his preferred form was not publishable by the standards of a contemporary serial readership. Major scenes were adjusted or radically altered in the subsequent serial version published by the Graphic; most notably the rape-seduction sequence, which was replaced in its entirety by a bogus marriage plot!
The 1891 volume edition also differs markedly from the later 1912 Wessex Edition, and each in turn differs from the original manuscript, where Tess is plied with alcohol by Alec before her ravishment. The 1891 version still leaves little doubt that she is raped, but later versions seek to cloud the issue by obscuring and mystifying Tess’s character and making her attitude and responses towards Alec’s advances seem much more complex, thus re-moulding her into more of a real human being rather than a construct of conventional melodramatic Victorian fiction. The intent was not to suggest culpability, but merely to challenge the stereotypical binary opposition that pits the pure woman of virtue against the ‘fallen’ one. Tess becomes more and more ill-defied and hard to pin down as Hardy refines the narrative and evolves the character, highlighting differences in the way Tess is viewed by the range of socially stratified communities inhabiting the novel’s landscape, and in particular the way she is understood by the various forms of patriarchy that she is subject to during the course of the book's proceedings. This all added to both the novel's notoriety and its popularity, as readers debated the various merits of Tess’s character, or lack thereof. In his autobiography Hardy records the Duchess of Abercorn’s dinner guests “almost fighting across her dinner table over her [Tess’s] character”. Opinion divided, according to Higonnet, between those who considered her ‘a little harlot’ and those who viewed her as ‘a poor wronged innocent’.

In his 2006 biography of Polanski, Odd Man Out, writer and film historian Denis Meikle speculates that:

if Polanski were to have been a character in his own film, he would have been Tess, not Alec d'Urberville, destined to pay the price for a crime which he may well have committed in the eyes of the law, but for which life and circumstance, rather than malice aforethought, unwittingly had equipped him”.
But aside from any psychological identification with issues thrown up by narrative elements in the material itself, or oblique ideas the director may have harboured about using the story as a means of confronting negative aspects of his own recent behaviour through the medium of his art, in a film which largely fetishizes the sullen yet defiant heroine who is made the participant/victim in a situation that seems uncannily like the one that led to his having to come to France to make the film in the first place, there were other more conscious reasons for Polanski’s wish to throw himself into work as soon and as wholeheartedly as possible, with Hardy’s masterpiece as his subject.

During one of the last occasions on which he saw his wife alive, Sharon had asked Polanski to read Hardy’s novel, keeping the idea in mind that Tess Durbeyfield might make a suitable role for her in a future project. Polanski had therefore already approached French producer Claude Berri about the possibility of one day tackling an adaptation. Now that he was to be resident in France for an indeterminate amount of time, the psychological therapy in committing to this piece of work, which had been so dear to his departed wife, also seemed an ideal means of turning his attention away from his new-found status as an international fugitive … hence the dedication "To Sharon" which appears at the end of the opening credits. There was another even more personal motive, though, which makes itself apparent in the generally idyllic, lush tone that the film adopts with its evocation of a bygone era of England’s past. In the extensive three-part Laurent Bouzereau retrospective documentary about the making of the film, shot in 2004, Polanski talked about his reasons for favouring the romantically bucolic look of Tess and the slowly unwinding, leisurely, pastoral stateliness with which the film tells the story, with reference to his own personal memories of his childhood escape from the Krakow ghetto:

“It was absolutely essential to recreate the country atmosphere the way I knew and remembered it. When I was a child and ran away from the ghetto, I lived in the country exactly like the one in Tess. It was in the forties, but it was 19th century Poland, because the peasants were virtually medieval in that part of Poland. I knew all about the country life: how you sowed, how you harvested … so I wanted to recreate this."
A mammoth project to organise though it was, Polanski gave himself only four months of preparation time before shooting commenced on the 7th August, 1978. The actress who was to have appeared in his now abandoned De Laurentiis project The Hurricane, seventeen-year-old German actress Nastassja Kinski, was cast in the lead role and given extensive vocal training to help her acquire and sustain a West Country accent, although English viewers will no doubt find it hard not to notice the Germanic inflections which steadily begin to creep in over the course of the film’s three hour running time. However, Kinski’s performance remains one of the best of her early career, in a difficult role which requires the actress to elicit audience identification with Hardy’s inscrutable heroine despite often appearing enigmatic if not downright sulky and introverted. She has to be able to make Tess seem defiantly resolute in her commitment to her own internal sense of values and her perverse romantic ideals, while being buffeted by patriarchal forces of progress and moral judgement, attitudes that she is powerless to combat. Kinski’s youthful beauty is alluring enough on screen for it to seem believable that her two very different suitors, Alec d'Urberville and Angel Clare (played by Leigh Lawson and Colin Firth respectively), would be united in their twin obsession with this country girl, reading into her pouty silences their own nuances of interpretation with regard to her true nature, each entailing a desire to either dominate or domesticate through individually very opposed strategies of male societal coercion. Coincidentally, Kinski also shared her Birthday with Sharon Tate.

During the course of the nine months it took to shoot the film, crisscrossing the country in a variety of French locations (over eighty, situated all over Brittany), some of which had to be returned to at different times of year as a prerequisite to capturing all four seasons on celluloid, since the narrative foregrounds the changes in the weather wrought upon the countryside “from early spring, through high summer, to the depths of winter”and the consequences on the agricultural labourers whose transient working patters are determined by this ever transforming landscape, a camaraderie developed between cast and crew, which many  continued to view fondly years after, as the greatest working experience of their careers. However, the film was beset with difficulties, not least a spiralling budget caused by the length of time the crew spent on location, resulting in Tess becoming the most expensive movie then ever produced in France, totalling a $12 million that almost bankrupting Claude Berri (when his wife was asked if the producer was sleeping well during this period, she is said to have replied: “like a baby … he wakes up crying every hour!”). There were other problems, too:  a great many weeks were lost to strike action by French film technicians, and Geoffrey Unsworth, the great British cinematographer who started his career as a camera operator for Powell & Pressburger, but became widely acclaimed for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as the innovative cinematographer for 200: A Space Odyssey and for his extraordinary work on Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, died in the middle of the shoot and had to be replaced at short notice by French cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who was then tasked with the problem of matching his work to the extensive material already shot. Unsworth had come straight to Tess, without a break, from working on Richard Donner’s Superman, another innovative project demonstrating his knack for combining a lush visual elegance with consummate technical craftsmanship.

One of the most striking features of Polanski’s approach to the filming of Tess is the way in which the director hangs back from making grand auteurist flourishes and instead chooses to accentuate and foreground the skills of his talented set of technical collaborators instead. A heightened sense of atmosphere, which captures a specific flavour of 19th century rural England as painstakingly as possible, is conjured via the film’s measured, meticulous pacing and its stylised observationalism, which emphasises photographic artfulness, detailed art direction and accurate but thematic costume design in the bringing to the screen of a highly faithful interpretation of Hardy’s world. Polanski himself summed up best what he was trying to achieve in this passage from his autobiography, Roman by Polanski: the only way to convey the rhythm of his [Hardy’s] epic was to use that setting as an integral part of the film, signalling the passage of time and the change in Tess herself by means of a visible, almost palpable change in seasons.”  

The screenplay adaptation was handled by Polanski and his long-time collaborator Gérard Brach, with British author and translator John Brownjohn brought in to provide a convincing approximation of Hardy’s Dorset dialect for the scripted dialogue. The tone is wishful, regretful, elegiac; encouraging melancholic yet nostalgic thoughts of Hardy’s fictionalised, Southern English idyll of Wessex (“a merely realistic dream country” named after a pre-Norman, Anglo Saxon kingdom), and all the associations it harbours with the author’s great themes of nature versus progress, the vestiges of traditional pagan folkloric belief versus mid-Victorian Christian morality, and the interstices such oppositions open up for mutability in the interpretation of the heroine’s sexual identity. The overwhelming surfeit of vivid, picturesque detail the film dwells on in its consciously sentimentalised evocation of the era is further buoyed by composer Philippe Sarde, whose work here sets the dreamy pastoral tone perfectly with his opening titles theme, a variation on Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves that similarly looks to traditional English folk music for its orchestral inspiration.  

This theme gradually gives way to the fiddle, hand-accordion and tuba accompaniment that’s provided by the trio of elderly Victorian gents in black, seen leading the women of the Wessex village of Marlott in their traditional evening May Day procession along a wild hedge-lined path toward the hilltop fields where they are later to be joined by the menfolk for their celebratory ‘club dance’. An association with a pagan ancestry rooted in worship of the Roman goddess Ceres -- the goddess of agriculture -- via the festival of Cerealia is identified with this wistful dusk scene as it transpires in the novel, which Polanski and Unsworth convey impressionistically with their bucolic depiction of the May Dance proceedings, the women of all ages dressed in white and festooned in flowers, carrying sprigs of willow, the youngest of them dancing with each other while they await the men’s arrival after finishing their work in the balmy spring evening. Their path takes them along a dusty crossroads between the various main locations of the story, a spot which will feature at regular intervals throughout the film, and which emphasises the contingency of the events that are to play such an important role in the fate of the heroine.
Two chance encounters which will come to have very great significance in that fate, occur at this location within the first ten minutes of the film: while Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) accompanies the rest of the womenfolk of her village in the celebratory proceedings, her father (not yet identified as such) is coming back home from work in the opposite direction along the crossroads. He meets the neighbouring village’s clergyman and amateur antiquarian Parson Tringham (Tony Church) who, from his mount, jocularly bids the bedraggled, gap-toothed peddler he spies shambling towards him along the country path a courteous  goodnight – mysteriously adding ‘Sir John’ to the  valediction, evidently for his own private amusement. Questioned over the matter, the parson explains to the bemused cottager that his researches into local church records of ancestry have revealed that the Durbeyfield name derives from that of a great and very old family once resident in the region, and that John Derbeyfield (John Colin) himself is in fact a direct descendant of the knightly house of the d’Urbervilles, which can be traced back as far as the period when the French night Sir Pagan d’Urberville first came over from Normandy with William the Conqueror -- thus ‘Sir John’! The parson can’t resist enjoying some mocking sport with his subject, requesting the hapless labourer raise his head a little so that he can better examine his profile: “ah yes, that’s the d’Urberville nose and chin alright, though a trifle coarser than of old!” he joshes, cruelly.

Unaware of the mockery being exercised at his expense, John Durbeyfield’s mind immediately turns to thoughts of how he might benefit from this grand revelation, only to be curtly informed by the now impatient parson that his illustrious d’Urberville kinfolk are these days only to be found in the vaults at nearby Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill:  “laid out in lead coffins, with your effigies under marble canopies.” There are no great lands, wealth or stately manors to inherit – the name is extinguished, and all John Durbeyfield can do by way of recompense is to chasten himself with the thought ‘how are the mighty fallen!’

Hoping to make the best of it anyway, and unaware that he has been mocked and insulted throughout the entire exchange, Durbeyfield goes off to get drunk in celebration of the acquisition of this useless piece of information about his family’s history, later embarrassing Tess when passing the site of the evening dance in a rented cart, bellowing “Sir John d’Urberville be who I am! There baint be a man in the whole of Wessex with finer skeletons than I ... Rows and rows of knightly ancestors I got!”

The second fateful crossing of paths comes about just before this last event, although it takes far longer for its importance to the narrative to be revealed. While the girls of Marlott dance on in the dusk as the sun sets in a golden haze over surrounding fields, three well-dressed educated young walkers on a tour of the vale stop to watch, and one of them (the handsome, fair-haired member of the trio) is tempted to join in with the May Dance festivities. We will find out later that this is Angel Clare, the idealistic, wayward youngest son of the Reverend James Clare, who rejects the staid evangelical theology of his parents and two older parson brothers, Felix and Cuthbert, and plans on learning the trade of farming instead, and maybe one day starting his own concern in the colonies … or perhaps going elsewhere abroad, such as Brazil, in order to escape the trials of modern life. A youthful, cheerful, athletic figure -- in contrast to his sombrely dressed and bookish brothers -- Angel catches the attentions of the village maidens (“tis sad work a-footing it with no one to give you a squeeze!” suggests one of the girls, coyly, beckoning Angel to join her in the fray). His romanticised, idealised view of country life leaves him insensible to the the context of the celebrations, rooted in the earthy sensuality of an ancient pagan festival, and he barely noticed at this stage -- at least consciously – Tess, as he energetically joins in with the revelries while, embarrassed, his brothers walk on. Here the film’s overriding themes begin to come together: the differing perceptions of identity and class made possible by context and history and the exigencies wrought at the crossroads of fate. The story’s overarching backdrop, portraying ancient countryside practises and beliefs from bygone days existing in the balance with conventional social structures, bolstered by a traditional-but-staid Christianity -- yet the balance now shifting between them as social forces and adjusted mores (fermented by encroaching industrialisation) begin to intrude into the landscape, are all ideas inherent even in this early collection of scenes.

Brach and Polanski’s screenplay takes almost as much delight as parson Tringham in baiting the cottager Durbeyfields’ inappropriately inflated social pretentions in light of their receipt of the news of the ‘importance’ of their ancestors. Tess makes her way back from the May Dance to find her mother (Rosemary Martin) over-excited at her husband’s claims of greatness, while her infant brothers and sisters scurry at their mother’s feet in their humble, cluttered candle-lit cottage. She informs Tess, in garbled fashion that, they’ve been found to be related to a very great family, “stretching back to before Oliver Crumble’s time – back to the days of the pagan Turks!” Mr Durbeyfield has retired to the local tavern to spread the news and it is not long before Mrs Durbeyfield turns the information into ‘a project’, having connected the family name d’Urberville in her mind with that of a rich old woman living in the neighbouring village of Trantridge. While Mr Durbeyfield is content to pose as a great gentleman, reclining in his chair at home with his clay pipe as though a lord of the manor, showing off the family crest that’s highlighted on an old heirloom (ironically enough, a silver spoon!), Mrs Durbeyfield enjoins Tess to pay Mrs d’Urberville a social visit, in order to “claim kin”. Tess realises that she is being asked to go begging, and is shy and reluctant to be a part of such an activity. “Come m’dear … with your pretty face you could coax her into anything!” says Mrs Durbeyfield.

So Tess ends up tentatively surveying the grounds of the d’Urberville estate. Far from being the grand old mansion of a very great and ancient family line, everything is newly built and the beautiful well-kept grounds drenched in the light of late spring. Here she meets Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who is indeed immediately taken with Tess’s ‘pretty face’. He listens to her story about their supposed shared family connections, and how Tess’s family have fallen on hard times since the death of its only horse. Images of nature in the d’Urberville grounds, such as an avenue of towering elms situated before the gravel driveway and an idyllic rose arbor, its charming walkways patrolled by preening peacocks, present a dazzling, picturesque image of peace and perfection, but one that has been carefully cultivated and landscaped with its wished for effect in mind.

Alec’s seduction of Tess begins here, amid these artificially contrived and controlled images of nature, when he covers her hat and dress in pink roses from the arbor, and sensuously hand feeds her out-of-season strawberries imported from abroad. After Tess returns home, a letter from Mrs d’Urberville arrives offering her a position at the d’Urbervilles' poultry farm. Mrs Durbeyfield has secret hopes that Tess’s rich cousin Alec will one day marry her pretty daughter and is keen to have Tess packed off to live with her rich 'relations' as soon as possible. Tess’s own feelings hardly come into the matter, and it is only later in the film, when she recounts these events to Angel Clare, that we learn that she was at the time considered to be an excellent pupil at her sixth form school and that it was thought that she might one day make a good teacher. Instead, she is caught up in the designs of her grasping parents and their fantasies of ancestral greatness, and of Alec, whose claim to the name d’Urberville turns out to be entirely fictitious, since his family is a nouveau riche one that has merely bought the title.

 It was common practise around this period for manufactures and professional men alike to establish themselves as landed gentry by buying up defunct titles; Alec’s father, Stokes, acquired the name of the extinguished d’Urberville family line “to make himself seem more important” after making his money with modern poultry farming methods. Reputation and identity are commodities to be traded in the industrial age, just as nature can be tamed and controlled to create the appropriate image. Meanwhile, the widowed Mrs d’Urberville (Sylvia Coleridge) is but a blind eccentric who treats her fowls like children and tasks Tess with the silly job of whistling to her pet Bullfinches, all lined up in miniature prison rows in their copper bird cages, stored in an oak-panelled drawing room especially maintained for the purpose.

Tess’s opportunities in life have been reduced to this absurd, pointless menial task; but her position is further circumscribed by the insistent romantic attentions of Alec and the jealously this brings about in one of Tess's co-workers at the farm. The relationship between Alec and Tess is depicted as a struggle between wills from the very first journey in which Alec transports Tess to the Trantridge farm to take up her new position. During the ride he recklessly gallops downhill in order to force her to cling onto him, eliciting a kiss from her in the process. She on the other hand contrives to lose her hat in the wind as retaliation in order to force Alec to stop the dog cart so that she may get off retrieve it, thereafter refusing to re-join him in the carriage and insisting on walking the rest of the way. But Alec employs all his charm and urbane charisma in the lush surroundings of the d’Urberville estate to win her over. The key event occurs after Tess joins her new co-workers at the barn dance in the nearby village of Chaseborough. Once again, she is depicted as a solitary creature, not really fitting in fully with the other labourers and workers as they enjoy their simple revelries, but unwilling to submit to Alec’s determined efforts to get her to ride home to Trantridge with him on the back of his steed, having promised to accompany the others on foot at the end of the evening. Eventually, a silly argument between Tess and another girl at the farm breaks out on their walk back, enabling Alec to ‘rescue’ Tess … and the fateful encounter in the forested Chase at dusk, a piece of woodland setting  – “the oldest and  loveliest in England” – which conveys the natural English landscape in its most evocatively primordial state, occurs.

The screenplay negotiates the minefield of alternate versions Hardy wrote for this scene, with different audiences in mind at different times, with a delicate but assured nimbleness. With dusk-light glinting through the tree canopy as Tess holds onto Alec for warmth on the back of his horse, the girl from Marlott learns that Alec has supplied her family with a new horse while she has been working at Trantridge, although he hasn’t mentioned it before until this very moment. She feels guilt for having spurned him so in the past and is naturally grateful for this act of kindness on his part. But her softening of demeanour is taken as a sign by Alec, who is unceremoniously knocked from his mount and bangs his head on a rock when he tries to kiss her. Now Tess is even more mortified for having caused this injury to her family’s benefactor so soon after learning of his generous philanthropy, and she begins to cry. Alec gently comforts her and she accepts his attentions during the emotion wrought from the intensity of the moment; but, crucially, he does not cease when Tess refuses his caresses as they become filled with ever more passion and ardour, thus identifying what follows as rape from her point of view and as the natural culmination of their battle of wills from his -- the act itself becoming occluded by mysterious swirls of bluish dust.
Having now ‘won’ his Tess, the film succinctly summarises in montage form the vast difference in perception which exists in Alec’s assessment of their situation as contrasted with Tess’s: Alec lavishes his love with gifts, dresses her in the fine clothes of a gentlewoman and takes her boating on swan-dappled summer lakes, seeing their union as an idyllic and romantically rendered ideal. Yet Tess remains sullen and obviously continues to feel entrapped by the gilded signifiers of luxury being heaped upon her. Alec’s feelings are portrayed as being genuine but inauthentic, his superior class position and Tess’s economic dependency being all that truly sustains their relationship, certainly not the homespun ideal of romantic love which Tess has grown up with in her humble countryside surroundings. She is also reluctant to continue their sexual relationship, and eventually tries to steal away from Trantridge in the early morning. Alec catches up with her and offers her the chance to come back with him. Even when she refuses, he clings onto a well-meaning template of romantic fidelity and tells her that she will always be able to rely on his help if ever she is in need of assistance in the future.

Tess returns to village life in the high summer months to take part in the harvesting of the corn fields, cutting and bundling the stalks into sheaths with the other kinfolk of the vales and villages from around the Wessex area. Here we learn than Tess has borne Alec’s child, although he knows nothing of its existence. It is a sickly, ailing thing and not long for this world; and a series of tragic events lead Tess to become more and more estranged from the traditional Christian beliefs of her upbringing. After her father refuses to allow the vicar of Marlott to baptise the child on its deathbed because of the shame that has now been brought to the family name, Tess prays to God for her baby to be spared, and for His anger to be visited upon her instead. But the child dies all the same that very night. Tess fabricates her own semi-Christian baptism which the local bee-keeping vicar (Richard Pearson), out of sympathy for her suffering, assures her will be adequate, yet he is still unwilling to bury the child on Christian ground because of the scandal this would involve him in in the eyes of the community. Tess tells him she doesn’t like him anymore, and that she will never go to church again. The child is given a makeshift burial in unhallowed ground, marked by a cross made by Tess from some crooked twigs, and marked by her with some flowers kept in a marmalade jar.

Tess’s character is increasingly associated with a strange mix of self-abasing Christian martyrdom and pagan mysticism, which brings her more forcefully to the attention of Angel Clare (Colin Firth) when she meets him again for the first time since the May Dance, during late summer and early autumn, while now working for farmer Crick (Fred Bryant) as a dairymaid at Talbothays dairy farm. Once again, three of Tess’s female workmates are romantically drawn to the handsome parson’s son, but he is unaware of their attentions and has come to lodge at the farm merely while he learns dairy management skills after past attempts at becoming a sheep farmer -- all part of his mission to immerse himself in countryside practices for his future project abroad.

His interest in Tess is sparked when he hears her talking at the breakfast table in Mrs Crick’s kitchen about how the soul can be experienced leaving the body by lying down on one’s back at night and staring hard at the starry firmament, until one feels as though one is falling through space while the body remains in repose -- a startling image which will be returned to at the end of the film during Tess and Angel’s flight to Stonehenge. When Tess and her three friends from the dairy are cut off by a flooded lane on their way to church one Sunday, Angel carries all four over the watery impasse, wading across with each of them in turn clinging to his back, just so that he can have the chance to be physically close to Tess. This all accords more closely with Tess’s ideal of romantic oneness; perhaps the fact that Angel, too, never goes to church, attracts Tess to him as much as he is attracted to her; but in any case, very soon a clandestine romance begins, marked by the strange phenomena of the churned butter at Talbothays refusing to come. Again, offbeat country folklore and mysticism intrude into the naturalistic narrative as dairyman Crick and some of the farmhands talk about the best conjurers they’ve encountered during their careers (essentially local witch doctors that use spells to set the butter right). One of the girls mentions that such a phenomenon is usually a sign that “someone is in love” in the near vicinity!

Angel almost takes pleasure in upsetting the cosy assumptions of his evangelical parents when he pays a visit to his father’s vicarage at Emminster, both of whom assume that he will one day marry a local Sunday School teacher called Mercy Chant (“she may be over-fond of decorating the church with fripperies, flowers, scraps of lace and so forth, but that’s merely a girlish fancy. It’ll pass.” assures Reverend Clare), until Angel informs them that he instead intends to marry a simple, country girl, Teresa Durbeyfield. Tess herself is riven with self-doubt over the matter, and feels unable to agree to the marriage given her ‘fallen’ status. She writes a letter explaining the trouble that has come upon her in the past -- how she was taken against her will, but how she must still be guilty because the Lord saw fit to take my child -- and she slips it under the door of Angel’s lodgings at Talbothays. When he still greets her just as enthusiastically as before the next morning, she at first assumes his love has been unaffected by her scandalous revelation. Only later does she find the letter unopened on the floor of his room, having been accidentally obscured by the mat on the inside of his door and under which it was unwittingly slipped the night before.

The couple decamp to one of the true ancestral homes of the d’Urberville family after the small marriage ceremony; Angel bestows the family jewellery upon his new bride then later confesses an affair with an older woman -- conducted while he was still a callow youth living in London -- and he asks for his wife’s forgiveness. Tess, feeling at ease at last in this homey environment, grants him this, then confesses the ‘sins’ of her own past – and is met with a tellingly stony silence. “You were one person, now you are another,” is Angel’s devastating response to the news. “You are not the woman I loved. [You’re] another woman in her shape.” He then tries to relate her predicament to the defunct status of her d’Urberville ancestry in order to rationalise his own response: “I cannot help associating your lack of firmness with the decline of your family. Decrepit families imply deficient willpower and decadent conduct.” Clearly Angel’s traditional evangelical upbringing has been present all along beneath a veneer of unbridled respect for sceptical new ideas and the ways of the countryside,  mixed in with a warped quasi Gothic Darwinism that associates any departure from contemporary moral norms with an ancestral decline. “I thought you were a child of nature,” he informs the heartbroken Tess; “instead you were the last of a line of degenerate aristocrats.”

The colour palette of the film radically changes from this moment on, moving from the warmer red-dominated end of the spectrum to the colder bluer end, as Angel and Tess continue to live in the empty mausoleum of the d’Urberville manor house which is now to become their tomb-like autumnal home -- a gulf opening ever wider between them as a result of Angel’s inability to live with the thought of Tess’s past. In the end he decides to leave for Brazil, hypocritically persuading himself that their parting is amicable and conducted on friendly terms, but insistent that Tess should stay in Wessex to avoid a scandal and to make sure appearances are properly kept up. Thus it is that Angel reveals he is indeed a true child of his respectability obsessed class and its proper Victorian upbringing after all, despite a previous affected air of carefree indifference to custom.

In the novel, a series of financial disasters befall Tess’s parents, forcing her to part with the money Angel leaves behind for her. In the film, she merely promises him she will return home to live with her parents while he’s gone, but instead falls into a destitution that’s endured almost willingly out of a sense of her suffering being somehow deserved. They part at the Cross-In-Hand -- a macabre stone obelisk at the side of another crossroads, with a hand print pressed into the stone – near an old field gate on which someone has ironically scrawled blessed are the Merciful in red paint. Still in love with Angel, Tess awaits word from her husband, yet hears nothing in reply to her numerous letters. She leaves the house and takes to living rough throughout the harsh winter months, at one point getting propositioned once again as she wearily trudges the roadways, this time by a farm holder who recognises her as the former beau of Alec Stokes-d’Urberville. Eventually, Tess turns up at the hovel-like home of Miriam, one of the dairy-maids who used to work at Talbothays but was later dismissed for her drunkenness. Miriam (Caroline Pickles, previously seen in several of the films of experimental British filmmaker Richard Woolley) finds her old friend work in the winter months at a farm in Flintcombe-Ash, where she also now works as a field hand digging turnips. It’s hard, back-breaking work of unrelieved drudgery, carried out in the mud, fog and the icy winds, even when snow is on the ground. Tess recognises her new boss as the farmer who earlier tried to get her into his dog cart for an unwanted assignation, once again emphasising the social, economic and sexual servitude which has haunted Tess Durbeyfield throughout the tale.

When Tess’s father becomes ill, there is a risk that the rest of the family will be made homeless, since the lease on the family cottage only extends up to and as far as Mr Durbeyfield’s death. She travels to Emminster, hoping to elicit help from Angel’s father. However, she is rejected at the door of the church by the Reverend Clare and so takes to preying to the obelisk at the Cross-In-Hand instead, once again turning to ancient primeval beliefs, despite being informed by an elderly, whiskery, and rather bow-legged passer-by, that there is a curse at the spot -- it being the site at which a ‘malefactor’ was once tortured in ancient times: “they did nail his hand to a post and then they hanged him … The sinner’s bones be down there to this day, I’m told!”

Tess’s mother writes to Alec informing him of their desperate circumstances, and he tracks Tess down to Flintcombe-Ash. Steam driven industrialisation of the farming process is now well underway yet drudgery and hard work remains the norm for the farm hands, who now have their work debasingly regimented and systematised. Alec tries to coax Tess to come away with him but she refuses to become his dependent once again. “You wear your ridiculous pride like a hair shirt,” he protests. “I may be a sham d’Urberville, but my little finger can do more for you than all your blue-blooded ancestors.” He begs her to reconsider: “I want to take you away from this wretched place. It’s unworthy of you; what is this strange temptation misery holds for you? Come to your senses –come away with me!” When his kindly offers and entreaties are rejected, Alec loses his temper and chides Angel, causing Tess to strike out at him. Alec’s angry response reveals the true dynamic which has underpinned their relationship all along: “I was your master once and I shall be so again. If you’re any man’s wife, you’re mine!” Tess will not relent, even when her mother and her brothers and sisters do indeed find themselves homeless when Mr Durbeyfield at last dies. She and her family end up forced to camp outside the church in Kingsbere, the site at which their ancestors lie unknowing under marble effigies and behind their rusty-gated stone mausoleums.

The film then abandons Tess for a time, and postpones the revelation concerning of the fate of her family while it focuses instead on the returning Angel who has come home after the catastrophic failure of his farming ventures abroad, to seeks out his abandoned wife once again -- mindful of the wrong he has perpetrated upon her. He turns up at the old family cottage, but of course finds new tenants in possession of it; he visits the vicar of Marlott and is shown Mr Durbeyfield’s grave stone, which has been etched with the voluminous details of the d’Urberville ancestry that obsessed him till his eventual end, though the mason still hasn’t been paid for his work. “Tringham would have done well to keep his mouth shut,” reflects the vicar, thinking on the litany of tragedies which have unfolded directly as a result of that one fateful joshing remark by the antiquarian parson on the road to Marlott.

At last, Angel tracks down Mrs Durbeyfield and the rest of the family to a well-kept cottage, and discovers it has been paid for by Alec, and that Tess has relented to his demands after all, believing Angel would never return. The welfare of her family has motivated her to give up her principles, and she now resides with Alec in a fashionable boarding house in the seaside town of Sandbourne. The film’s final tragic events unfold after Angel finds his wife again, now living a sham passionless marriage in the plush lodgings being provided for her. Alec has finally won his prize, but her trapped spirit has been crushed, and now Angel has returned she cannot bear to endure the hollow indignities of a loveless life with a man she feels nothing for.

After dressing the character of Tess either in off whites or dark greys throughout the entire film, costume designer Anthony Powell chose a late-Victorian bustled dress the colour of dried blood for Tess’s meeting with Angel at the train station, which is where she joins him to run away with him after confessing to having murdered Alec with a bread knife. The discovery by the landlady of a spot of spreading blood on the whitewashed ceiling of the lodging house feels like a typical Polanski flourish which confirms Tess's grim assertion, but in fact it comes from the novel; Powell added his own signature though (which Polanski picked up on) by adding a spot of blood to the tip of the white petticoat poking out from under Tess’s dress, seen as she seats herself in the train opposite Angel. 

The couple are now united in the mutual delusion of a shared romantic idyll, Angel promising to save Tess and to stick by her, no matter what she has done. After finding their way back to their former manor house only to be quickly discovered there the next morning, they make a run for it as the police net closes in on them. Eventually, the couple end up at the ancient mystical site of Stonehenge in Salisbury, another association with paganism and primitivism, where Tess and Angel are joined together under the canopy of the stars for the last time. In the misty morning, the police surround the structure; Tess is asleep on one of the horizontal 'altar' stones like the sacrificial martyr she has for some time viewed herself to be. As she is solemnly led away by a mounted police escort, the sun rises between the ancient standing stones of the henge, and a caption relates, in an almost casual, incidental fashion, how Tess was later hanged for Alec's murder …

Stonehenge had to be reconstructed in a French field, fifty miles north of Paris; but the film’s hefty $12million budget came about mostly as a result of the length of the shoot and the number of different locations that were required to create the vivid style Polanski had in mind. Period details such as those seen in the use of authentic nineteenth century farm machinery and steam engines, etc., were obtained by loans from collectors. Despite the expense and the at times arduous and occasionally tragic experiences the production wrought for those who participated in it, everyone involved in the making of Tess felt they had taken part in a uniquely special undertaking. The post-production process proved somewhat less inspiring for Polanski though, thanks to the now debt-ridden Claude Berri’s dissatisfaction with the three-and-a-half-hour cut the director eventually delivered after ploughing through nine months’ worth of rushes, which apparently took a month of over four hours of screening time a day, just to get through. Tess was also the first film mixed in France using the then-new Dolby stereo system, although this supplied its own raft of unique headaches since the Dolby system proved incompatible with French studio recording technology of the late-seventies, and its problems were multiplied by the need to create both an international sound version and a French dub within a very small space of time, leading to everyone involved working round the clock to get everything finished.

Today Claude Berri is probably more widely known for being the director of the acclaimed French film Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon des Sources; at the time he was facing ruin, so the prospect of releasing a film that could deliver only half the number of screenings a day that most films would be expected to provide, could not have seemed like an especially tempting one. At first Polanski tried to compromise by allowing Sam O’ Steen, the genius American editor responsible for cutting many a Hollywood classic including two of Polanski’s greatest masterpieces, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, to be employed to come in and re-edit the film into a two hour work, while he put distance between himself and the project by going off on a three-week trek in the Himalayas. But the results were not to Polanski’s liking (“it was like watching a film with every other reel left out” was how the director later described the new edit in his autobiography) and he refused to sanction this abridged version being show to the public, despite feeling guilt at his producer’s now impending bankruptcy.

For a time, Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Company was slated to distribute the film in the states, but after flying to Paris to view it, Coppola turned out to want much more drastic editing and cuts than even Berri had asked for, radically changing Polanski’s elegant, carefully established rhythms and completely gutting the intended mesmeric effect of the film, as well as bowdlerising Hardy’s original novel even more utterly than the prudery and sensitivities of Victorian periodical editors ever had! Polanski eventually compromised as much as he could and cut about twenty-nine minutes from his original edit, which still left the movie with a three hour run time. Consequently, it failed to find a distributor at all in the United States until the film critic Charles Champlin, for whom Polanski had screened the film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, gave it a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times, citing it as “the best film of the year”. Columbia soon after stepped in to distribute it as a result of this one plaudit, and Tess eventually achieved a great deal of acclaim and three Academy Awards -- for art direction and set decoration (Pierre Guffroy, Jack Stephens), cinematography (awarded posthumously to Geoffrey Unsworth, and to his replacement Ghislain Cloquet) and for costume design (Anthony Powell). It also went up against David Lynch’s equally worthy The Elephant Man for best film, but both lost out to Robert Redford’s barely remembered Ordinary People.
The high resolution 4K digital restoration of Tess, undertaken by Pathé and premiered at Cannes last year, was used as the master for the gorgeous new Blu-ray transfer presented by the BFI as part of a new dual-format HD edition of the film, which also includes a standard definition DVD and a colour booklet of essays and extracts from Polanski’s autobiography. The transfer is absolutely stunning, exhibiting a rich, detailed authenticity which captures the essence of Unsworth’s magical lighting with as much fidelity as the high definition format is probably capable of achieving. The recreated nineteenth century of Hardy’s English countryside comes to life in the fabrics of costumes and the texture of set design -- but most of all in the gorgeous, nostalgic evocation of the beauty and the harshness of West Country life which Polanski puts right at the heart of his film. The original PCM 2.0 stereo audio English track is included but the Blu-ray also makes provision for an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track as well. Extras on the Blu-ray consist of only a short trailer and a two minute gallery of Anthony Powell’s costume notes and sketches, set to an extract from Philippe Sarde’s score; the disc space is otherwise dedicated exclusively to the three hour film itself in order to derive the highest resolution possible from the medium. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are included.

The DVD disc features the same extras, but also includes the three-part Laurent Bouzereau ‘making of’ documentary made for the 2004 DVD release from Columbia, which clocks in at about 70 minutes in all, although all three sections are presented individually. This is as comprehensive and authoritative a work as one has come to expect from the acclaimed French documentary maker, and features a wide selection of cast and crew members discussing their roles in the movie, headed by Polanski himself.
The first section, From Novel to Screen (29 mins), features Michael Irvin, professor of English at the University of Kent, and writer Claire Seymour discussing the context in which Hardy wrote the original novel and the background to its publication, first in serial format and later as a three volume novel edition. Producer Claude Berri and co-producer Timothy Burrill talk about the genesis of the film version and translator John Brownjohn relates how he tackled adapting Hardy’s dialogue (or lack of it in some crucial scenes) for the screen. Casting director Mary Selway and Roman Polanski talk about casting Nastassja Kinski in the lead role and her dedication in learning to speak with a West Country lilt to her accent under the guidance of dialogue coach Jennifer Patrick. Actor Leigh Lawson talks about how he’d all but given up on acting in film after having had such a bad experience during the making of Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story that he thereafter instructed his agent to turn down all film parts offered from that point on. Luckily, his level-headed agent ignored this demand when Polanski’s casting team came to call! In addition Polanksi, costume designer Anthony Powell and art director Pierre Guffroy talk about the process of finding locations and organising the production schedule.

This leads into the second featurette, Filming Tess (26 mins), in which members of the cast and crew discuss the technical challenges posed by the lengthy shooting schedule. Roman Polanski and Anthony Powell talk about turning up on the first day of shooting at the villa chosen as the site of the Stokes-d’Uberville house, and finding it had not been properly prepared and that the weather was so bad that the roses that were needed for the rose arbor sequence had already died. Silk roses had to be used and the entire crew were commandeered into re-painting the areas of the site that needed to be seen on screen. Costume designer Anthony Powell talks about Polanski’s perfectionism and how Nastassja Kinski coped with the demands of the shoot without complaint; he relates how Polanski made her wait so long while he prepared one particular shot that Powell was able to watch a spider weave a full-blown web between Kinski’s hat and the camera! The expense of the shoot was inflated by the need to pay to have television aerials removed and power lines taken down in the French countryside, and to cover long stretches of tarmacadam with peat; and the weather turned out to be a constant challenge to the production. Lots of technicians who worked on the film also appear on screen to relate some of their own anecdotes and it becomes clear that despite the difficulties, this was largely a happy experience for everyone, although tinged with tragedy as a result of Geoffrey Unsworth’s sudden death from a massive stroke halfway through the making of the film. Polanski pays fitting tribute to the cinematographer as one of the best directors of photography he has ever worked with.
Finally Tess: The Experience (20 mins) provides a summing up of the film by those who worked on this unique undertaking, and Polanski discusses the difficulties of the post-production process, trying to get a satisfactory final edit and finding adequate distribution for the film.

This BFI dual-format edition of Tess also comes with a 28 page booklet featuring an overview by professor of English Literature at UCL Philip Horn, who locates his analysis of the film in a context which emphasises its connection to Hardy’s novel and contrasts it to other film adaptations of the work which have appeared over the years. There is a biographical sketch of Polanski’s career by writer Michael Brooke and an extensive extract from Polanski’s own autobiography covering the conception, making of and post-production periods of the movie. Anthony Powell provides a fascinating essay in which he discusses his first meeting with Polanski, his research methods for finding out all about English rural life in the nineteenth century, visiting local museums and junk shops to amass old sepia period photographs to use as a basis for his costume designs, etc. He relates how Polanski was unwilling to believe that nineteenth century women actually worked in fields still wearing their stays and multiple layers of petticoats until Powell showed him contemporary photographs he had collected that clearly showed that this was indeed so. Powell also talks about the thinking behind the colour palette used in the costuming and how it gradually changes through the film; and there are some interesting observations about Polanski’s penchant for cinematic problem solving, with Powell’s account of how the director managed to shoot a sequence that required the camera be placed directly in front of a mirror, without it being reflected back. The booklet is presented in full colour, with copious colour production stills and reproductions of Powell’s costume design sketches.
The magnificent beauty of this restoration will undoubtedly help to elevate Tess considerably in any future evaluation of Roman Polanski’s filmography, and the BFI’s stunning new Blu-ray edition provides an exquisite venue for viewers to reacquaint themselves with a sometimes much under-appreciated masterpiece, which is now being treated with the gratifying care and reverence it has always deserved.

Release Date: 1979/Company: BFI/Format: Blu-ray & DVD/Region: B/Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1/Director: Roman Polanski/Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth,  Leigh Lawson,  John Collin,  Rosemary Martin, Carolyn Pickles , Richard Pearson, David Markham, Pascale de Boysson, Suzanna Hamilton, Caroline Embling, Tony Church, Fred Bryant

1 comment:

  1. stunting release if you are viewing it for the 1st as I suspect most of us are. this visual, heady, romantic parody of rags and riches of the same infamous family name begets misery in spades. we see a lay of the land like you were just transposed back as a speck on the wall. great, cinematography, costuming, plus character to actor/actress matching is beyond superb. treacle and blood in ample supply.

    great job of usual bonus/background features leaves you feeling like an expert of opinions and know how of material as if you were teaching at academy levels. in all, it's simply breathless.