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 The character is withdrawn and depressed for most of the movie and Kinski plays only the surface levels of these emotions. She’s quiet, shy, withdrawn, but there’s never any indication that there’s anything motivating these character traits.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.

Why am I just hearing about this?

Sorry, fans of The Passion.

I think I can get to this by Thursday.

More dining with Andre

Got the following info from Phoenix about My Dinner With Andre for thems as is curious.

From Ebert:
Gene Siskel and I did a question-and-answer session with Gregory and Shawn after the first anniversary screening of the film's New York run. What I remember best from that night is that the two men, asked what they might do differently a second time around, said they would switch roles--``so that no one would think we were playing ourselves.''

Not in real time but filmed with exquisite attention to the smallest details by director Louis Malle over a period of weeks. And not in a New York restaurant but on a studio set. The conversation that flows so spontaneously between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn was carefully scripted. ``They taped their conversations two or three times a week for three months,'' Pauline Kael writes, ``and then Shawn worked for a year shaping the material into a script, in which they play comic distillations of aspects of themselves.''

Thanks Phoenix!

In other news: I haven't talked about this, but I've been watching these movies from the floor of my office. Over the weekend, back pain and leg pain inspired Tara and I to go buy some viewing chairs. They should be in sometime this week, at which time, I will give my thankful ass the opportunity to post on the blog.