THE MOVIE: This 1979 epic is as close to sentimentality as Roman Polanski has ever come and straddles the line between his early brilliance (from Repulsion to The Tenant) and his faltering 1980s (Pirates, Frantic). And yet this delicate and faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s quintessentially Victorian novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles perfectly fits the director’s hostile and threatening view, where not only do bad people do bad things but where the social and natural worlds practically egg them on.
Peasant daughter Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is sent by her family to the manor of the nouveau riche D’Urbervilles, chasing rumors of their noble lineage and winds up in their employ and in the leering eye of son Alec (Leigh Lawson). A forest rape (discreetly metaphoric and chillingly unsettling) from this “cousin” leaves Tess jobless and the mother of a sickly infant not long for life. The disgraced Tess exiles herself at a dairy farm, where she falls for parson’s son Angel (Peter Firth), as starry-eyed a soft soul as she. And yet when Angel proposes marriage, Tess’ past makes her pause, and her eventual confession to Angel sends her retreating to Alec and the D’Urbervilles for a final tragedy that manages to be both typically cruel Hardy and mischievously menacing Polanski.
THE DISCS: The Tess DVD appears trumpeting Polanski’s directing Oscar for The Pianist and with a copy of the Hardy novel, perchance an apologia for the scant extras—three quasi “making of” featurettes hardly worth viewing. Only one bonus deserves to be called such. Tess is presented in its original Panavision aspect ratio, permitting two decades of cropped VHS viewers to see veteran cameramen Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet’s stunning work. Tess was a late picture for both—Unsworth died during shooting, Cloquet shortly thereafter—and both’s wide-screen experience with 1950s and ’60s European cinema paints Polanski’s earthy, sinister lyricism in David Lean-spectacle strokes. Of the ’60s European auteurs, none had Polanski’s eye for the sublime image, single frames loaded with a nigh-inexpressible morass of emotions, psychology, and narrative drive. Unsworth and Cloquet lovingly realize Polanski’s visual letimotifs—e.g., the director’s career-long fascination with water as both a source of life and its bitter enemy finds a visual counterpart in the steam of locomotives, boggy mist, and, in one chilling masterstroke, a drip, drip, drip of blood. Overstylized period pieces since the mid-1980s on make Tess age better and better with every passing year, and the DVD reminds that it deserves to stand next to Chinatown as a cinematic achievement, a dissection of the past with the eyes, minds, and tools of the present.