When Bad Things Happen to Good Victorians
When his estranged wife Tess (Nastassja Kinski) appears outside the window of his departing train, Angel Clare (Peter Firth) cannot quite believe it. Not because this previously mild-mannered woman has committed murder and is fleeing the scene of the crime—Angel doesn’t yet know that—but because Tess had told him just hours before that she wished never to see him again. You see, a woman tends not to take kindly to being abandoned on her honeymoon, which was Angel’s response to Tess’ wedding night confession that she’d borne another man’s child years before.
Angel, weak, wistful fool that he is, later hopes to reconcile. He spends many months searching before finally locating Tess at a gorgeous seaside cottage owned by her dissolute nouveau riche “cousin,” Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who shows a similar flair for mistreating the heroine. It was Alec who seduced Tess when she arrived at his house as a very young and poor relation looking to claim kinship. Now Alec, too sly to miss an opportunity, supports her indigent family in Angel’s absence, keeping her as his mistress in exchange.
Until Tess dispatches him in an unseen yet presumably spectacularly bloody fashion, that is. We see her stride out of the house, and then director Roman Polanski cuts from the sight of Alec’s maid discovering his blood leaking through the floorboards to Tess’ arrival at the train station. Dressed in crushed red velvet and moving without urgency, she could be a phantom of wish fulfillment for Angel. There is more longing than shock in his gaze, even after Tess announces that she has killed Alec. Shockingly, the murder comes to seem like the consummation of their previously abortive marriage.
Anxious to assert his manly worth, Angel vows to protect Tess “by every means in [his] power.” Considering their past, Tess understands precisely how little Angel’s pledge amounts to, but she is beyond arguing with him. She knows, even if he does not, that the end is near. The men in her life have caused her too much sorrow for her to consider a fight for survival worthwhile. It is her peaceful fatalism, rather than his deluded hope, which dominates this tender but stern picture’s final scenes and consolidates what has gone before. Only after she has resigned herself to impending capture and execution and to the lack of justice in her pastoral world, does Tess begin to radiate the grace implied by her beauty and integrity.
Shot on location in France, meant to approximate the 1880s rural English setting of the Thomas Hardy novel on which it is based, Tess feels more intimate than epic. There are no grand set pieces or political pronouncements; neither r does Polanski view the period setting with Kubrick’s eye for deconstruction à la Barry Lyndon (1975). Rather than depict the imposition of historical forces on characters’ lives, Polanski dwells instead at the micro level, examining how personalities and decisions reflect their time and place. To his eyes, these people may be at the mercy of the era’s repressive values, but only because they agree, however tacitly, to perpetuate a cruel social order—ostracizing a woman who bears a child out of wedlock being the gravest of many inhumane values that contribute to Tess’ ruin.
Due to this emphasis on individual decision and weakness, Tess sidesteps the period genre’s pitfalls, which so often cause directors to lose focus in the sumptuous glare of sets and costumes. And the screenplay does not attempt to find a cinematic equivalent for the famously ironic yet empathetic voice of the Hardy narrator. The film instead suggests the oppressive social order through characters’ behaviors, often their missteps and self-serving actions. Tess is a victim, then, not of Society or some similarly vague catchall, but of men who lack the will to make the right decision when it does not conform to public expectations.
Even with Tess’ sickly baby nearing death, for instance, her tragically proud father refuses to allow the town parson to christen the child. He denies its very existence, fearing that to acknowledge it would deal a blow to the family’s already meager standing in the community. The morning after the child dies, Tess seeks out the parson, who confirms with relief that her own cobbled-together baptismal rites will ensure the infant’s safe passage to salvation. But when she pleads for a Christian burial, he declares, “Well that’s another matter. That would concern the village as a whole, and not just the two of us, you understand.”
If Tess’ environment is a cruel one (though beautifully filmed), it’s mostly the fault of the inhabitants. The greatest harm done Tess comes from the hand of her husband, Angel, her supposed protector. On their wedding night, as he’s trying to justify his impulse to abandon her, Angel says, “You were one person. Now you’re another… Another woman in her shape.” He allows the “sin” of single motherhood to obscure all of Tess’ virtues, all that he’d claimed previously to love.
Although Kinski places too much emphasis on her passivity in the opening scenes, Tess’ intriguingly tranquil vitality withstands numerous injustices committed by men such as Angel, Alec, her father, and the parson. None of them overtly wish her harm, but they have a common weakness, their conception of propriety. Their narrow views cannot accommodate her goodness and certainty, forces both earthy and ethereal that prevent the picture from turning too bleak.
Bitterly romantic, the film balances Tess’ fatalism and her will in such a way that we do not regard her simply as a victim. When the vicar denies her child the right to a Christian burial, she plants a homemade cross at the head of the grave. When she confesses her past to Angel, in a lengthy scene that begins with the eroticized presentation of a wedding gift, Tess speaks plainly of “fate” but does not refuse responsibility for her own actions. It’s crucial that these are not political acts but personal ones. Her life may be interpreted as a protest aimed at Victorian social codes, but it is the emphasis, in both Hardy’s novel and Polanski’s skillful adaptation, on Tess as an individual that makes her story timeless.
According to the informative featurette, “Tess: From Novel to Screen” (one of three included in this Special Edition DVD), Polanski was inspired to make the film because the Hardy novel was a favorite of his late wife, Sharon Tate. As always with this director’s work, one must resist the urge toward psychoanalytic speculation, but as the story goes, Polanski found the novel on Sharon’s bedside table after her death, along with her note that it would make a good movie. He dedicated the film to her in return.