Monday, October 24, 2005

Day 24: Tess

Roman Polanski’s Tess is a trying film, overlong and dry. It’s based on Thomas Hardy’s book Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book I am unfamiliar with, but now know is one I won’t be reading. Most of the problems I have with this movie can probably be attributed to the source material, though that isn’t to let the makers of the film off the hook. I had a hard time caring for the main character here, a shy, retiring young woman whose naïveté is only surpassed by her capacity for self-martyrdom. The movie lacked any kind of traction in its narrative. At times I felt as if there were a checklist of plot requirements being checked off somewhere in the engine of this film. The movie has a sumptuous design and period detail to spare, but, when, twenty minutes into a two-hour and fifty minute film I am admiring the period detail, I think something’s gone wrong.

One thing that’s very wrong here is the lead performance by Nastassja Kinski as Tess. The character is withdrawn and depressed for most of the movie and Kinski plays only the surface levels of these emotions. She’s quiet, shy, withdrawn, but there’s never any indication that there’s anything motivating these character traits. Additionally, the few moments when Tess actually does make a decision and works to enact it are, for the most part, painfully confined to off-screen status. Very often, the movie abruptly cuts forward in time with little warning. At first it’s a great use of editing, but after three or four of these cuts, there’s a sense that all the developments the movie's skipping over would be more interesting to watch than the bits we do get to see.

And, so, we have a movie of inaction as Tess shuffles from job to job, is lusted after by various men and then abandoned by them. One sequence that stands out and illustrates the paucity of narrative friction in the rest of the movie is when a pious young man named Angel courts Tess. Previously, Tess had a child out of wedlock (the father was a louse and the baby died) and she decides to confess her history to him in a letter. When she discovers that, when she slid said letter under Angel’s door, she also slid it under the rug and, therefore, he never received it, the camera pans over, away from her and blinding sunlight fills the full frame. It’s a surprisingly effective evocation of her feeling, something the movie doesn’t engage in enough. Polanski has a gift for understatement, but in this movie, his stately, artful approach to filmmaking only serves to deaden the tale.

I couldn’t get over the feeling that this movie felt like a well-produced PBS version of the book. The movie’s narrative has a bit more weight when taken as a whole; Tess’s story is more moving in retrospect than during the piece. It’s the kind of feeling you have after reading a good book that is, at times, hard to get through. A book has the advantage of being an art form entirely out of time: one can set down or pick up a book at a whim, after all. Here, after the fourth or fifth time the movie depicts a character walking down long stretches of abandoned road, it becomes as plodding and dull as such a journey on foot would be. It's a feeling that the entire movie suffers from.


Matt Eppright said...

IMO, while not as good as Barry Lyndon, "Tess" was certainly one of the most beautifully shot films of the 70's. Also, Philippe Sarde's magnificent score (academy award nominated) is one of the favorites in my CD collection.

The great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Superman) sadly died on the set of the film.

I'm a Polanski nut, so I indeed like the film quite a bit, though not on the level of Chinatown or Frantic.

Just my few cents.


Anonymous said...

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one of Hardy's best works. Yes, the novel is flawed, but it is brilliant: Hardy uses Tess as a vehicle to question the naivety and mores of the day. My favorite part of the book is the enigmatic way that he approaches Sorrow's (the baby) conception: it is never clear if it was rape or seduction, and scholars have battled over it ever since.

Tess was banned in Britian, due to its unabashed treatment of "fallen" women and its candid depiction of sex and marriage. It is a remarkable work, well worth the read.

Don't give up on the book!

I know nothing about the film. Sorry.


David Wester said...

Lionsai: The one thing that I got from the film is the unintended evil of Christianity, something I didn't get at in my review for fear of having to read more Christian pablum. But I think the rape/seduction thing in the movie, while it was ambiguous, was pretty pedestrian, at least to these 20th century eyes.

David Wester said...

Matt: I certainly enjoyed the techincal aspects of the film, though I wasn't completely wild about the score. I imagine it would work better on CD.

Anonymous said...


Hrm, I should check out the movie. I think the rape/seduction scene should be somewhat calm and, in the novel, it's rather tame. Personally, I think that Tess was seduced, not raped, as I truly believe that she knew that she was doing. (Girl grew up in a one bedroom house on a farm; she's the eldest child. She has seen sex. People read that scene too achronistically.)

My theory of Tess? Hardy is actually fighting against the idea of required sexual purity for women and indicting the entire system; other people, not her sexual choice, are what limit Tess and, ultimately, destroy her life. Even Angel's choice of her little sister, the "pure" one (hmmm... .there's an interesting parallel to this story in the Talmud, I wonder if he was influenced?) is treated with an aura of repulsion.

But, key to the whole matter: Hardy cannot commit to his thesis. In the novel there is a whole supernatural element, the "curse" of the D'Ubervilles, that begins to play a role in the second portion of the book. His argument that woman can, and should, have sexual choice is obliterated by his inability to actually LET Tess choose.

Sorry. Tess is one of my absolute favorite books. (Top Three? Crash, Posession and Tess. Seriously!)

Swedish Girl said...

Yikes, what are you doing watching Tess of d'Urbervilles? Soon we'll see you reviewing Jude the Obscure, and then I'll get really worried about you. It's all very gloomy, isn't it?

David Wester said...

It is depicted as rather tame in the movie. What I meant by pedestrian was "nothing special". As in, she doesn't even seem to think about it or react to it until much, much later. As in, she doesn't act like a human being so much as a zombie to whom things are done. I enjoy seeing zombie's heads explode.

I don't believe there's a little sister character in the movie, so I don't know what you're talking about there.

David Wester said...

swedish girl: this was a choice based on Polanski.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the trouble here (w/r/t the Hardy discussion) is that we all assume that there are just two kinds of sex: consensual and non-consensual. In fact, all sexual experiences fall along a continuum, with rape and 100% consent at opposite ends.

Sex in this book/film is an issue of power that occurs within a social framework which, as was pointed out earlier, is being interrogated. The power and social relationships are complex and fraught with ambiguity--as is the sex.

Sure, Tess "knew what she was doing." Rarely is nonconsensual sex a case of, "whoops, it's a penis!" But can we really say that a person's awareness of their actions constitutes consent? Coercion, force, and power politics permeate the fabric of our culture and motivate people in strange and subtle ways.

So, was Tess raped, or did she choose to have sex? If we can say that she made a choice, we must also see that she made that choice because she didn't perceive that any other choices available.

Ash Karreau said...

Thomas Hardy is my favorite non-horror related novelist, and Roman Polanski is my favorite non-Kieslowski Polish filmmaker. Together, they have made a very long film. And please, please, God don't ever use the words 'sumptuous' or 'lush' in the review of a period piece. You're playing right into their hands.

David Wester said...

"And please, please, God don't ever use the words 'sumptuous' or 'lush' in the review of a period piece. You're playing right into their hands."

Noted. Agreed.