Tess

by Dan Sallitt

This article appeared in the Chicago Reader on March 27, 1981.

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, and John Brownjohn

With Nastassia Kinski, Peter Firth, and Leigh Lawson


Tess, Roman Polanskiís film version of Thomas Hardyís Tess of the díUrbervilles, has pleasantly surprised a sizable class of filmgoers who have never awaited Polanskiís coming projects with bated breath. Polanski has combined critical and commercial success before with Rosemaryís Baby and Chinatown, but he belongs unmistakably to that group of quirky personal artists with whom the public and the critical establishment never feel entirely comfortable. If Tess is doing anything to change his reputation, it is because audiences have been able to appreciate it as a movie movie instead of as a Polanski movie. By contrast, hardcore Polanski fans (including myself) are generally passing the film off with faint praise and scrambling for ways to relate it to the rest of his career. Tess is not the first perplexing Polanski film, but it is the most perplexing if one tries to locate Polanskiís stylistic concerns beneath its placid surface.

Polanskiís earlier films seem to have little in common with each other except their dissimilarity to Tess. If one takes as the core of his work the turbulent dramatics of Rosemaryís Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown, and somehow manages to make a stylistic synthesis between these films and the absurdist vein of Knife in the Water, Cul de Sac, and What?, one still must account for the watch-and-wait enclosure films Repulsion and The Tenant, and the uncategorizable The Fearless Vampire Killers. Still, despite the diversity of this list, itís not impossible to pick out some common elements.  The most noticeable characteristic of Polanskiís style is the frequent use of forced opposition between the foreground and background of his compositions, emphasized by the use of wide-angle lenses that distort the visual field in order to keep both foreground and background in focus. Polanski usually puts further emphasis on the relationship between foreground and background, sometimes by creating a proliferation of detailed background action, sometimes by using conspicuously barren landscapes. The feeling of many of Polanskiís most characteristic moments grows from the conflict between dramatic narrative events, which throw emphasis onto the characters, and a visual style that shifts emphasis to the background, that constructs a universe irrelevant to or insensitive to the foregrounded characters. The reason for Polanskiís wide-angle style, and the reason that he gravitates so naturally toward absurdism, is his desire to display the dislocations and discrepancies in his material simultaneously rather than alternately. (A good illustration of this principle is Polanskiís tendency to compress narrative transitions and capture the resulting shifts of tone within single, brief shots - for example, Faye Dunawayís rescue of Jack Nicholson at the old-age home in Chinatown, or Charles Grodinís betrayal of Mia Farrow in Rosemaryís Baby.) Even in such relatively low-key, uneventful films as Repulsion, the environment is an active presence in Polanskiís films, and no element of the film universe, including the characters, receives attention in and of itself. It is worth remembering, as one approaches Tess, that Polanskiís has always been a metaphysical cinema; the relationship between people and the world is not observed in social or psychological terms (either of which would imply that the world is of interest only insofar as it affects people), but in philosophical terms.

Most of the obvious elements of Polanskiís style are absent in Tess; if the film relates stylistically to the rest of Polanskiís career, it is in subtler ways. Oneís first impression of Tess is that it recreates with fair accuracy the epic style that for all intents and purposes vanished with the 60s. The story begins with neíer-do-well Jack Durbeyfieldís chance discovery that he is descended from the vanished aristocratic family of díUrberville; he and his wife decide to send their eldest daughter, Tess (Nastassia Kinski), to seek the favors of a moneyed family that adopted the díUrberville name because no one else had claimed it. The film almost seems to flaunt its flair for meticulous 19th-century period recreation, moving from the opening scenes of a girlsí societyís outdoor dancing party to the drab working class environs of the Durbeyfields to the greenery and splendor of the pseudoaristocratic Stoke-díUrbervilles, each setting evoked in loving detail. But period recreation in itself is not new to Polanski - whose attention to background detail has admirably suited the requirements of the period film in The Fearless Vampire Killers, Macbeth, and Chinatown - and the resemblance of Tess to the epics of the 60s is not simply a matter of art direction. It is more directly a result of a clearly articulated narrative style that amplifies the important events and turning points of a characterís life, and expands and contracts the time scale of the film in accordance with the biographical importance of scenes and transitions. This mode of narrative is a radical departure for Polanski; one would have thought it alien to his concerns. But even at the outset, there is no danger of mistaking Tess for a David Lean movie; Polanski plays each scene at a cool distance, usually in long-take medium shots that work against the dramatic structure of the scenes. The forced wide-angle perspectives of the earlier films are gone, but Polanski still shows an affinity for foreground-background opposition that keeps the characters and the environment in juxtaposition.

As the film unfolds, the acting supplies more evidence that Polanskiís approach to the subject matter is not as conventional as it may first appear. Tess is given a job managing a poultry farm at the Stoke-díUrbervillesí through the efforts of son Alec (Leigh Lawson), whose unwholesome designs on Tess are all too obvious. At Tessís first favorable response to Alecís overtures, he rapes her; she stays on with the Stoke-díUrbervilles for a while longer as Alecís mistress, but is soon overcome with guilt and returns home, where she bears Alecís child. The baby dies soon after birth, and Tess goes to work at a dairy farm and meets the second man in her life, Angel Clare (Peter Firth), a pure-hearted chap whom Tess cannot quite bring herself to tell about her past. They marry, and Angel proceeds to evoke the audienceís boos and hisses by his callous, brutal reaction to Tessís wedding-night confession. Both male characters are extraordinarily unsympathetic, and although Polanski hasnít really manipulated the narrative to stir up the audienceís ill feeling, one still feels that neither man had to come off as quite such a bastard. The reason our reactions are so unmitigated is that the acting - all of the acting in the film - has been systematically flattened to one dimension. Lawson and Firth are not exactly caricatures of the rake and the prig; their performances are in no way exaggerated. But the performances suggest no other qualities besides rakishness and priggishness, modulated though they be. Kinskiís performance, too, is strangely remote and uninflected. Her role is that of a person who endures, and despite the variety of emotions that Tess goes through, the keynote of endurance is the only aspect of her character that Polanski stresses.

It eventually becomes clear that what Polanski is trying to do is eradicate the entire psychological basis of the story. I donít want to blow any more of the plot than I already have, but the rest of the film is devoted to dramatic emotional and psychological changes, and Polanski withholds each of them from the viewer, usually by simply sending the character off somewhere, out of the reach of the narrative. It is somewhat easier to understand why Polanski is doing this than it is to appreciate it. Most of his earlier films employed more sophisticated means of shifting our attention away from pure psychology; here he simply makes it go away. In the past, Polanski would subtly use the twists of a careening narrative to emphasize a world at cross-purposes to the charactersí psychological concerns. But here, for whatever reason, he has started with a narrative style completely devoted to biography, a style that leaves the characters alone on center stage. Only the most daring psychological ellipses enable him to keep the charactersí psychology from becoming the focus of the film, and to transform the film into a detached, philosophical observation of the random patterns of a life. (In this light one can imagine why Polanski has left behind his wide-angle distortions. Such visual effects were always his way of vigorously asserting the presence of the environment in order to put psychology in context. In Tess, there is no psychology, and no such assertion is necessary.)

My feeling is that Polanski has not laid enough groundwork for us to accept his stripped-down characters. The difference between a successfully stylized character and a boring character is the filmís ability to make us accept a given level of abstraction; Polanskiís attempts to suggest an alternative to the psychological approach seem to me too mild. Perhaps the initial decision to use an epic, biographical narrative style was a bad one given Polanskiís demonstrated stylistic interests. He reportedly feels that Tess is his best work, so it remains to be seen whether it marks a turning point in his career.

Fortunately, Tess has received enough acclaim that most filmgoers will get out to the theaters and make their own judgments, and I can give short shrift to my duties as a consumer consultant. My misgivings about the project notwithstanding, it should go without saying that any Polanski film is sprinkled with enough moments of expressive art to make attendance mandatory for anyone who loves movies.