Monday, September 21, 2009
Reeling Backward: "Tess"
Nastassja Kinski was one of those foreign actresses who briefly invades American cinema, creating a stir with her exotic beauty and daring roles. For some, like Ingrid Bergman, it can turn into a major film career in the States. But for Kinski and many others, fame was fleeting. By the mid-1980s she was relegated to supporting roles in movies like "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "Paris, Texas." By 1985, her star -- at least in the U.S. -- had faded to dusk.
Some have said that the overt sexuality of many of her early roles doomed her from being accepted as a serious actress. That's possible; I still consider 1982's "Cat People" to be one of the most erotic American films ever made, and Kinski's performance as a young woman discovering her burgeoning sexuality made quite an impression on a youngster just hitting puberty -- not to mention her frequent, lengthy nude scenes. (I like to joke that the only major female star I've seen spend a larger percentage of a movie in the buff is Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Flesh + Blood.")
So I was interested to see how she fared in a straight dramatic role. "Tess," made in 1979 for recently exiled director Roman Polanski (a former lover of Kinski's), was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three statues for art direction, cinematography and costumes. Kinski herself was not nominated, which must have been considered a major snub at the time. But she gives a solid, vibrant performance as a woman repeatedly wronged by the men in her life.
I have not read "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy. I was interested to learn that the little-used subtitle of the novel is "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented." In the film version, Tess' greatest obstacle to happiness is her own sense of guilt, which eventually takes on the form of self-loathing. She comes to believe that she does not deserve for good things to happen to her -- so of course she ends up preventing them from coming to pass.
In the novel, it is left deliberately unclear whether poverty-stricken Tess is seduced or coerced by rich fop Alec. But Polanski's film (which he also co-wrote) is unequivocal in its depiction of her being raped. She eventually bears a son, which is sickly and dies after only a week. The scene where Tess demands that the baby be allowed to be buried in the church cemetery, and is refused, is perhaps the film's most powerful. She buries the child herself just outside the cemetery walls -- an apt metaphor for Tess' place in society.
Tess Durbeyfield is sent to the home of the d'Urbervilles after discovering that they are scions of one of the oldest and most celebrated families in Europe. Her parents hope that the wealthy Mrs. d'Urberville will take pity on her poor relations. But it turns out they are not even related: the name and title were purchased by a wealthy family. Alec, smitten by Tess' beauty, arranges for her to have a job on the estate, and after his attempts at seduction are rebuffed, he assaults her in the forest.
Her troubles are just beginning. After the death of her baby, she thinks she's found a quiet respite working as a milk maid at the Crick farm, but the presence of Angel Clare (Peter Firth) leads to a dilemma. Angel and Tess fall deeply in love, and Tess faces a horrible choice about whether to tell her love about her notorious past.
She does (eventually, after some delay), and Angel's reaction is hard to fathom in these modern times, but is understandable for a pastor's son of the 1800s. Angel rejects Tess, refusing even to sleep with her on their wedding night. "You are not the woman I fell in love with," he tells her before departing for Brazil.
Things go on from there, with Tess eventually falling under the spell of Alec once again. It's a heartbreaking film, one in which tragedy triumphs over love again and again. One is tempted to relate this theme to Polanski's own life, which is a litany of pain where he has occupied the roles of both victim and victimizer.
I won't dwell there too much, although I must say it is an amazing and bold choice to make a film in which rape is a major component shortly after being convicted of sodomizing a 13-year-old girl. Polanski fled the U.S. before being sentenced, and is still considered a fugitive. He is cinema's dark genius, brilliant and contemptible.