(Roman Polanski, France/UK, 1979)


In the wake of his flight from America in the late '70s, Tess surprised many Polanski observers.

It is his most classical film, a respectful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's literary masterpiece Tess of the D'Urbervilles. It has a stateliness and beauty sometimes derisively associated with a middle-class "cinema of quality" or costume film.

In Polanski's personal artistic development, however, the film signalled a mature turn; he sought a project "not as cold as my past work, something warmer", in which he could "deal more with sentiments and feelings than with style" – although the style, while quieter, is expressive and precisely modulated. He made Tess, he declared, because he was "nostalgic for romance", no longer wishing to shock audiences with sex and violence.

This nostalgia is, in fact, complex. Polanski's film is a pastoral account (like Malick's Days of Heaven [1978]) of a period of historical change. It celebrates a moment of harmony between man and nature – the latter previously figured as desolate or threatening in Polanski's cinema, but now foregrounded for its "mysterious, hidden side ... which resists startling, overdramatic effects". This paradise is about to be irreparably altered and damaged by the arrival of machine technology.

With this changing society comes harsher, nihilistic, oppressive values governing the relations between people, now savagely divided in terms of gender, class and nationality. Polanski intensifies what he saw as the "topical, modern" theme of intolerance in Hardy.

Yet this historical portrait is not schematic or overdetermined, for at its centre is a woman (Nastassia Kinski as Tess) who experiences, at least fleetingly, a personal liberation and joy.

MORE Polanski: Chinatown, Cul-de-Sac, Death and the Maiden, The Fat and the Lean, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Frantic, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Repulsion, The Tenant, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Knife in the Water

© Adrian Martin June 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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