Tess (1979)

Tess (1979), directed by Roman Polanski.

The clergyman should have kept quiet. When he informs the town drunk that he is heir to a decayed noble family, farmer Durbeyfield decides to make something from that. He sends his exceedingly beautiful eldest daughter to visit rich relations, hoping to get money or maybe just sell the "title" to them.

It is a mistake. The son of the big house is a patient seducer. When he wears Tess down her life becomes a long slide into ruin.

This production is very good at the "Thomas Hardy look": the worn countryside of muted colors, the working poor struggling but not starving, with their own dances and folk ways. See Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) for another example.

It is one of the closer literary adaptations I can remember. It seems to obey the textual narrative more than cinematic notions of dramatic flow. That takes 2h51m, which is going to be too long for many.

This is just four years after Nastassja Kinski's nonspeaking debut in Wrong Move (1975). She's 18 and I think rather fine in the role. I noticed her cheek scar for the first time, just like Carole Lombard's and Gene Kelly's.

When the film appeared I wondered if it weren't Polanski's apology for his sex crime of two years before: the themes of rape and innocence despoiled. That seems unlikely: the same year as the film he gave an interview to novelist Martin Amis were he displayed a spectacular lack of contrition. Rather the reverse.

Lush traditional score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Geoffrey Unsworth died three months into shooting and shares cinematography credit with Ghislain Cloquet. Produced by Claude Berri.

Available on Blu-ray from Criterion. It is a soft-looking, often dark film and the transfer reflects that.