A Melancholy Ode to Sharon Tate
The night of 8 August 1969, members of The Manson Family broke into the house Sharon Tate shared with her husband Roman Polanski. Then they brutally murdered her and three of her friends, while Polanski was away for work in London. It would come to be known later, that the last time the director saw his wife, she had handed him a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles, expressing what a great film she thought it would make and how much she would love to play the part.
It would take Polanski a whole decade to fulfill his late wife’s wish, even though in the meantime he would go on to direct masterworks of cinema like Chinatown and The Tenant, both of which express a damaged worldview, populated with characters that seemed purposelessly aimless, pawns of a nonsensical, often cruel fate, which seems to make sense according to how Polanski declared that his wife’s murder had made him become a man who would always have “eternal dissatisfaction with life”.
Tess, while unarguably more beautiful than the rest of his ‘7’s work, in a way plays out like an ode to Tate’s life. Like Hardy’s doomed heroine, Tate was praised for her uncommon beauty from a very early age (by 1959 she was already winning beauty pageants) and her love life shows a propensity for intense romances that fizzled quickly, that is until she met Polanski. The heroine of Hardy’s novel is a young beauty who, from a very young age, is told that she can use her physical attributes to get away with things. She is reminded of her features by characters around her, as if that is the only thing that makes her worthy, leading to having her parents practically sell her away to a family with whom they they should connected.
When we first meet Tess in the film version, she is captured by the camera as she walks among other maidens of her age. All dressed in white, they walk towards a field where then they proceed to dance and enjoy themselves. Even if we didn’t know the film would be about this character, the way actress Nastassja Kinski captivates the lens is enough to give us a clue. Her features, completely ravishing and exotic among a group of pleasant looking women, lead us from the beginning to the sad conclusion that all beauty dies, and the film then proceeds to explore this “virtue” as nothing but a curse.
Tess is sent by her father (John Collin) to visit the house of the d’Urbevilles, who he is led to believe are his wealthy relatives. Upon arriving, the young woman is welcomed by Alec (Leigh Lawson) a man who becomes instantly enamored of her and who eventually ends up raping her and getting her pregnant.
When we see her years later, she has become a milkmaid who captures the eye of a handsome young man named Angel (a positively cherub-like Peter Firth) who declares his love for her, marries her and upon learning of her past, proceeds to abandon her without giving her a chance to explain herself (“You are not the woman I loved” he declares). Such seems to be Tess’ destiny and Polanski captures her inability to act against these unseen forces by having her become absolutely powerless.
Tess’ path through life can’t help but remind one of a famous quote Tate said during an interview shortly before her death, “My whole life has been decided by fate. I think something more powerful than we are decides our fates for us. I know one thing - I’ve never planned anything that ever happened to me.”
If Tess seems to ignore romance in favor of something akin to melancholy (and sometimes even sadism), it’s because it’s meant to be Polanski’s way to cope with the tragedy that befell him years before he took on the project. We can see how, by having his sole attention focus on Kinski’s expressionless face, he is using her as a slate upon which he can project his greatest fears and passions.
The young Kinski was compared by Janet Maslin to Ingrid Bergman, whose otherworldly beauty similarly grabbed the lens and would never let go. But unlike Bergman, who was always given a chance to display her astonishing thespian gifts, Kinski is denied the opportunity to do anything other than react to the events that surround her, and as such makes the film one of the most gorgeous love songs to loss ever filmed. Shot with incomparable mastery by Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, Tess is the rare film that feels like a painting come to life, and just like a painting, allows us to see precisely what we wish to see.
The Criterion Collection has released the latest digital restoration of the film for this Blu-ray edition and to call it breathtaking would be a serious understatement. There is not a single frame in this film that doesn’t make you want to pause, print and hang to display on your walls.
Also included are a large array of documentaries and behind the scenes featurettes, the best of which is a vintage episode of The South Bank Show in which Polanski explains his reasons behind wanting to make the film. A 2006 documentary, called Once Upon a Time “Tess” gives us a more academic look at the behind-the-scenes process, while a 45 minute short shot on location during the shoot, allows us to see the beauty of the French countryside (which stood in for England) without the cinematographers’ lens involved. The set is completed with a theatrical trailer.