Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tess (1980, Roman Polanski)

Part of the 1980's Project

Seeing as we are in the midst of the annual Hollywood self-idolatry-fest known as Oscar season, it seemed a good time to shift gears in the 1980’s Project away from Z-grade slasher films (oh, there’ll be more of them in the future don't you worry) and take a look at the one 1980 Best Picture Oscar nominee I had not yet seen, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s book Tess of the d’Ubervilles. It’s title truncated to Tess which always caused me to confuse it with that Matt Dillon Disney horse-riding film, Tex, it’s the sort of film the movie industry likes to think it excels at: a prestigious adaptation of a classic piece of literature centered around an epic romance; and then pats itself on the back for making it and further rewards the accomplishment by giving it awards. But in this viewer’s mind, with a few exceptions, say Lawrence of Arabia, these prestige films hardly ever result in a transcendent piece of cinema. How many people today really ever discuss the merits and influence of Tess (unless they are in the middle of a project to see as many films from the year 1980 as possible, of course)? Or for that matter, a more recent example, The English Patient?

Call me cynical, but I cannot help but speculate that Roman Polanski’s involvement here is partially strategic. This was the first film he directed after fleeing America as a fugitive on statutory rape charges. Now a nearly three hour film based on a nearly hundred year old book would never be considered a strong commercial property, but it is the type of film that critics, and as mentioned above award givers, cherish, so a successful adaptation could salvage his career aspirations in a time of public crisis. He opens the film with a dedication to his slain wife, Sharon Tate, it was one of her favorite books and she recommended it’s prospects as a film to him. If you will allow me my further cynical strategic ponderousness, this could either be seen as a mea culpa to his wife for his dalliances after her murder or serve as a way of Polanski reminding deractors of his past status as a victim of horrendous circumstances.

But what of the film itself? Polanski’s run of films in the 60s and 70s proved him to be a filmmaker keenly attuned to the psychological mind, master of claustrophobic panache and possessing the rare ability to skillfully mix comedy and horror to the point where the lines between the two become blurred. I can see what initially drew Polanski to this material, it involves two of his favorite personal themes: the emotional scars and betrayal of a woman perpetrated by a supposed loved one and/or family and the false pretenses, secret lives and hypocritical nature of the upperclass. Still, while beautifully shot, it never truly feels like a “Polanski” film. The methods and style he employs are pretty much indistinguishable from how a less unique director would treat the material. Hell, for such a great director of violence, it seems an odd choice that the one murder scene and ultimate fate of Tess are both handled off screen (I must admit to having not read Hardy’s book, so perhaps this is in fidelity to the source, still their absence is a waste of one of Polanski’s strengths). The one major exception to the generic tendencies is the utter lack of sentimentality throughout, most notably in a scene where the infant child of Tess dies which is handled in the same matter-of-fact “shit happens” sensibility that accompanies all of Ms. D’Ubervilles travails. There is also a nice lack of using the score as an emotional substitute (at least until the last twenty or so minutes). Polanski’s work is solid and the lack of sentimentality appreciated, still I guess I wish, since he’s a favorite director of mine, that he would have put a more personal imprint on the project, such as Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon.

Tess’s most glaring weakness lies in its lead performer, Natassja Kinski, picked seemingly for her beauty and the fact that she and Polanski were having an affair (an affair that started when she was 14, damn Roman, dating a 14 year old while you’re fleeing the U.S. on statutory rape charges, I don’t know if I should condemn you for your emotional immaturity or applaud your balls. Didn’t you know any thirty year olds at the time?) than for her minor acting skills. She lacks the gravity required for the role leaving the viewer to deduce whether she suppresses everything internally or if Kinski is just incapable of conveying a variety of emotions. Whether she’s being raped, falling in love, having her desires suppressed, Kinski’s only expression is nonplussed (look at that poster, that‘s the expression she has for the entire film) as if she was concentrating mostly on being photographed. To her credit, Kinski would evolve into a better actor, most notably in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, but after watching Tess I feel the need to read Hardy’s book to get a complete sense of her character, not necessarily a bad thing, seeing how I should read more classic literature and all.

Kinski’s limp presence along with Polanski’s sometimes generic direction, prevents Tess from being a wholly successful venture. Speaking of the book, it must have had a major influence on the career Lars von Trier, since it’s basic plot elements: a young girl continually betrayed, forced to fight and scavenge for survival, oppressed and eventually hung once she finds true happiness; would pretty much serve as a template for the majority of his directorial output between the years 1986 to 2006.

After watching Tess, I came upon an article in the Los Angeles Times about a documentary based on the Polanski statutory rape trial that is playing at Sundance. The film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired makes the case that Polanski while not an innocent by any stretch of the imagination, may have been a victim of a judge who was more interested in his own celebrity than a fair case. You can read the article here.


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