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Our Name Has Become d’Urberville

August 1st, 2010 · 2 Comments

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski

Roman Polanski was born August 18, 1933 in Paris. The sordid details of his flight from the United States in 1978 have often overshadowed discussion of the director’s work, which at the age of 77, includes one of the best films of 2010. Is he a world class filmmaker? In the month of August, I take a look at ten directed by Polanski.

Tess 1979 poster Tess 1979 dvd

Tess (1979)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Screenplay by Gérard Brach & Roman Polanski and John Brownjohn, based on the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Produced by Claude Berri
172 minutes

As a sum of its dialogue, casting, photography, editing and music, Roman Polanski’s screen version of the 1891 novel by Thomas Hardy tantalizes with how thrift of imperfection it seems. Once a passion of producer David O. Selznick — who wanted wife Jennifer Jones to play Tess — actress Sharon Tate handed the book to her husband two decades later. Dedicating the finished film to his slain wife, Polanski adapted the novel with Gérard Brach and tasked John Brownjohn to translate their script from French to English, tuning an ear to the Dorset dialect. In this expensive co-production between France’s Renn Productions and England’s Burrill Productions, Polanski cast in the title role 17-year-old Nastassia Kinski, the West German ingénue who Francis Coppola would call “the most beautiful woman in films today” when he cast her in One From the Heart a few years later.

Tess is worth viewing as a visual feast alone. Shot extensively during the “magic hour” of dusk by Geoffrey Unsworth (who died during production to be relieved by Ghislain Cloquet), the splendor of the landscape and the way sunlight reveals character is present in every frame. Much of the film’s success lies in the casting of Nastassia Kinski, who is on-screen much of the running time and exhibits an unusual power mostly foreign to actresses her age. What’s striking about Tess is the tender loving care Polanski takes to let scenes breathe, neither overwhelming the audience in period detail or racing through the events of the book. A whole world materializes in which an outsider struggles to find her place. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the playful yet majestic musical score by Philippe Sarde is a standout.

Tess 1979 title card

In rural Dorset of the late 19th century, local girls assemble for their May dance. John Durbeyfield (John Collin) crosses paths with a new parson, who notifies the peasant that his research into local genealogy indicates the Durbeyfields descend from an old family, the d’Urbervilles. Though his ancestors have died off without any wealth, Durbeyfield and his wife (Rosemary Martin) dispatch their teenage daughter Tess (Nastassia Kinski) to call on a wealthy widow in the town of Trantridge who goes by the name d’Urberville. The farm girl encounters the widow’s playboy son Alec (Leigh Lawson) who takes a shine to Tess. Accepting a job on the property, she discovers the “d’Ubervilles” are not blood relatives at all but merely bought the name. Ultimately giving in to Alec’s salacious advances, she returns home bearing his illegitimate child.

When her child succumbs to illness and dies, Tess leaves home to take a job as a milkmaid. Just as her co-workers Izz (Suzanna Hamilton), Marian (Carolyn Pickles) and Retty (Caroline Embling) have, Tess falls in love with a young apprentice farmer named Angel Clare (Peter Firth). The son of a reverend, Angel is attracted to Tess’ earthy wisdom and announces to his family that he plans to marry the penniless girl. On their honeymoon, Tess reveals that she surrendered her maidenhood to a cousin and bore his child. Ruining her husband’s image of her, Tess is sent back to her destitute family while Angel leaves for Brazil to seek his fortune. Tess reunites with Izz to work on a farm owned by Alec d’Urberville. He offers to provide for Tess if she returns to him, but clinging to her pride, she chooses poverty instead. For a while.

Tess 1979 Rosemary Mullin John Collin Nastassia Kinski

Tess 1979 Leigh Lawson Nastassia Kinski

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski Leigh Lawton

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski

Tess 1979 Peter Firth Nastassia Kinski

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski Peter Firth

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski Peter Firth

Tess 1979 Nastassia Kinski

Tess 1979 Leigh Lawson Nastassia Kinski

Jeremy Richey’s ardor for Nastassja Kinski inspired him to name his blog Moon In the Gutter and in June 2009, he turned his attention to Tess.

This terrific behind the scenes article by Harlan Kennedy on the making of Tess appeared in the October 1979 issue of American Film.

What do you say?

Tags: Based on novel · Coming of age · Drunk scene · Father/daughter relationship · Father/son relationship · Small town · Train · Unconventional romance

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Aug 4, 2010 at 7:48 am

    I’m loving your Polanski posts Joe and thanks so much for linking to my Tess article!

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 9, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Jeremy: I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. It’s always a thrill to discover a filmmaker and I’m psyched that in addition to the two classics he directed for Robert Evans at Paramount, Roman Polanski has a great body of work to enjoy. Thanks for commenting!

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