AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
TESS – POLANSKI IN HARDY COUNTRY
ROMAN POLANSKI HAS USED THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE TO FILM "TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES"
by Harlan Kennedy
Polanski opened the door. Morning sunlight poured through the window-walls of
What drew a director noted for
his surreal, macabre, and absurdist touch – in movies like Repulsion,
Rosemary's Baby, and
"I have been influenced a great deal by surrealism and the theater of the absurd," Polanski said. "But now that the world itself has become absurd and almost surreal, I want to go back to the simplicity and essence of human relationships."
Polanski picked up a paperback copy of the novel. "Tess is above all a great love story," he said. "What happens to Tess in the story is very much the raw-bones of Victorian melodrama: She is seduced when young, bears a child who dies, is deserted by the man she later marries, and finally is sent to the gallows for the murder of her seducer. But the flesh Hardy puts on those bones is astonishing. He links the girl to the rhythm of nature, within a Victorian society at odds with everything spontaneous and natural. "
Polanski got up and walked to the window. He looked down reflectively into the busy turmoil of the street below and then turned and said, "Tess is regeneration and continuance. But the social times she lives in are out of joint. By contrasting her with her mother, Hardy points this up marvelously. Listen!"
He walked back to the table, opened his well-thumbed copy of Tess, and found the passage:
Between the mother, with her fast-vanishing lumber of superstitions, folklore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge . . . there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.
"The contrast is all there," said Polanski triumphantly. "The mother belongs to the past. Tess belongs to the present, to the modern age, to you and me. She is the first truly modern heroine."
"As for what you asked
about my films," he said, putting the book on the table, "yes, Tess is a new departure. It is, as I
have said, the film of my mature years. I shall be sorry if people have such
a limited idea of what my style as a director is like – and my preoccupations
– that they cannot accept something different from me. In the cinema,
directors can be typecast as well as actors. The point will undoubtedly be
down from the facade of the Carlton Hotel over the busy seafront at
Preceded by his poster, Roman
Polanski was at the
Polanski, at forty-six a short,
boyish, tousle-haired figure in white blazer and blue open-neck shirt,
managed to rule the press conference with a winning mixture of candor and
diplomacy. Yes, he would answer questions about his legal status in
Some questioners were determined to pan for scandalous autobiographical nuggets in Polanski's decision to film a novel about a young girl's loss of innocence. "Ugliness," he said scornfully, "is in the eye of the beholder." Instead, he averred his love for Hardy's novel, both as a love story and as a harrowing tale of social and religious intolerance.
Two days later we met again in
Polanski's top-floor suite at the
When the chanting started up again, Polanski jumped up and went to the balcony. "Film festivals!" he exclaimed. "Everyone is here to make a noise, and no one is here to talk about films."
Tess, a French-English coproduction, will mark the first time that Hardy's novel has talked on the screen. It was filmed once – a silent version in 1924 starring Blanche Sweet and Conrad Nagel – and after that David O. Selznick held the movie rights for many years (with Jennifer Jones in mind for Tess). Selznick's two greatest dreams had been to film Gone With the Wind and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He never fulfilled his second dream; at his death the rights to the novel remained in his estate.
Polanski discovered the book
some years ago through his wife, Sharon Tate, who had been suggested for the role of Tess. It was his
introduction to Hardy. To film Tess, Polanski teamed up with producers
Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill.
Burrill had worked with Polanski before, on Macbeth.
Berri is chief of Renn Productions in
"The copyright for Hardy's novel ran out at the end of 1978," Berri explained recently. "But we started filming in the summer of that year. Polanski was ready, and we bought the filming rights for the remaining six month of the year because we were all high on the idea of Tess and enthusiasm was at its peak."
The speed with which the movie
got under way was also determined by Polanski's ready availability in
Who was to play Tess? The production took an intriguing turn when the role of Hardy's doomed and beautiful heroine went to a young German actress: Nastassia Kinski, daughter of stage and screen actor Klaus Kinski, the star of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Nosferatu. In looks a darker, sultry-sweet Ingrid Bergman, she had worked with Polanski two years before, when the film-maker did a photo session for the French Vogue.
"When I met Nastassia," Polanski recalls, "she was fifteen, but she was a woman. Woman and child at the same time. She still has this quality, and that is perfect, of course, for Tess."
Off went Nastassia
Polanski remembers with glee,
"I wanted someone who knew
If the preproduction work on Tess was blessed with enthusiasm and happy coincidences, the shooting itself – which started in July 1978 – began more and more to resemble a production of that proverbially disaster-prone drama, Macbeth. (Perhaps Polanski was paying for the ease with which he put Shakespeare's play on the screen eight years ago.)
A conspiracy of bad weather,
strikes at Joinville studios, and
Polanski's own perfectionism stretched the already elastic shooting schedule
to an alarming eight months. And there were also personal tragedies during
the shooting: First, Nastassia's friend and
dialogue coach Kate Fleming, of
Working to overcome these losses, Polanski managed to spearhead the crew and press on to shoot in forty different locations, returning to principal ones in different seasons of the year.
Tess, at $11 million, is
one of the most expensive films ever produced in
When I got back to
Polanski's British editor, Alastair McIntyre, genial, voluble, and gray haired, has worked with the director on all his films but two. He was busy at a Steenbeck pruning the trailer for Tess: a lyrical series of dissolving shots from the film set to Sarde's haunting music (more haunted than haunting on this occasion since the Steenbeck was acting up and dissonantly "wowing" the music). "It'll sound better in the projection room," McIntyre said with a smile.
Polanski burst into the melee. He wanted to see and approve the trailer. He summoned everyone to the screening room and sat at the back on a sofa in a consulting huddle with McIntyre. The trailer unreeled once, twice, three times, each time eliciting new murmurs and comments from Polanski, who was sprawled in ever deeper and more horizontal concentration.
Then Polanski ordered the projectionist to run the next spool of film: uncut footage of a scene between Tess and her seducer, Alec D'Urberville, with several takes of each shot. The scene is a Victorian breakfast room, bright and opulent. Alec D'Urberville, played with dark, mustachioed suavity by British actor Leigh Lawson, is sitting at the breakfast table carving ham and lobbing taunts at Tess, whose head lies on the table in a fit of weeping.
"Another bad dream?" he sneers quietly between saws with the knife. "These morning vapors of yours are becoming a bore."
Tess, in a feather-trimmed morning gown and period coiffure, raises a face damp with tears. Then she moves impulsively to the door, turns round slowly as if a thought has struck her, and walks back toward the table, her eyes flickering momentarily on Alec's carving knife.
The coming murder of Alec is presaged, deftly but delicately. But just what degree of delicacy was the topic of debate between Polanski and McIntyre. Should the knife be visible in the foreground in the first over-the-shoulder shot from Alec's viewpoint? Should close-ups of Tess be intercut, and which ones? Should the filmgoer's main attention during the scene be on her or on him?
With several different takes from several angles to choose from, it was a tantalizing jigsaw of a sequence. One of the strongest shots was taken from behind Tess and focused on Alec's wordless unease as she advances toward the table. Yet in other shots, though she speaks no words, Tess's tear-stained face has a simple, harrowing eloquence hard to take one's eyes from.
Polanski and McIntyre sketched out the plan for a rough cut of the sequence, and then Polanski jumped up from the sofa and suggested that we go for lunch.
At a German restaurant near the Etoile, while we made our way through orders of choucroute, I asked Polanski why, in the late seventies, he had been drawn to a Victorian novel, one of whose main themes was sexual and religious intolerance. Hadn't time and social change vanquished the very problems Hardy was talking about?
"No," Polanski said. "Not at all. These problems are universal and timeless. It's the same thing now and probably will be for quite a while. Absolutely every society has rules and mores, very often based on irrational prejudices and superstitions. And hypocrisy. Maybe if Tess were less noble in mind, if she lied, if she accepted certain things that she finds instinctively repulsive, she could have lived a happier life than she did. But then she wouldn't be Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and we wouldn't be here talking about her."
Nonetheless, Polanski has eliminated from his movie some of the more unwieldy Hardy episodes. Alec's belated and improbable conversion to Christianity has been dropped ("That's so typically Victorian!" says Polanski), and so has any explicit reference to Tess's hanging. Hardy ends his novel with a black flag hoisted over Tess's prison, indicating that she has been hanged. Polanski ends his film with the heroine's arrest at Stonehenge, where she has fled with her husband, Angel (played by Peter Firth), after murdering Alec. I asked Polanski if the omission of Tess's death didn't weaken the shock impact of the story.
"No," he protested. "Even in Hardy the hanging is almost an epilogue. I don't think it's essential. The story is clear enough and sad enough without it. You know Tess is doomed. In the film the succession of shots, simply the succession of shots, will give a feeling similar to the end of the novel."
After a pause to tackle more choucroute, he said,
"We built our own
The most simple and harrowing
moment, I suggested, in all of Hardy's novel is Tess's final line, "I
am ready," spoken when her captors close in on
was wonderful here, not just as an actress but as part of the working
team," he continued. "In the
Back in his apartment, Polanski disappeared and returned waving triumphantly an armful of yellowing typescripts. "These are the production notes David Selznick prepared for Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1946," he said. "Danny Selznick gave them to me."
Polanski laid them out proudly on the table. "Look," he said. "Selznick's research lady, Muriel Elwood, has listed all the characters, and the clothes they should wear, and how they should look. Also, settings, props, general geography. Tess is here: `Sixteen years old, oldest of the D'Urberville chain, fine featured, roundly built, deep red lips, deep dark eyes that are neither black nor blue nor gray nor violet, a mass of dark hair. . . .' Fantastic! And look, here is a scene description – 'the landscape is of unspeakable dreariness.' "
The pages lay there, staring out from the shadowy reaches of film history, a challenge to future moviemakers tackling Tess. I asked Polanski if he, too, had accumulated production notes or story-boards.
"Notes, yes, of course," he replied. "But I don't storyboard. I like to be flexible. I know instinctively what I should and should not do with the camera. I spend a lot of time with the camera operator, more than with the lighting cameraman, really. We have to mesh. He must be more or less my size, because if he's taller, then he's got an entirely different view of the world. I'm five foot five inches. You're six foot two. That's nine inches, a hell of a difference. I see people's faces differently than you do because of our respective heights. So I must look for an operator who is more or less my size."
Polanski poured himself a cup of tea and said, "On Tess we were really very ... improvisatory. We did a lot of filming in the twilight or half-light, and that meant rushing about with the crew, camera, and actors to catch the light at a certain moment in a certain place."
The turning point in Hardy's book, I suggested, was one such twilight scene outdoors, when Tess loses her virginity to Alec. Hardy describes the event with puzzling ambiguity, leaving the reader in doubt about Tess's own role in it. Was she raped or was she seduced? Was it consent or coercion?
"Well, I think in a case like that it's both, actually, or neither," Polanski said. "It's half-and-half. It happens by insistence, and by using physical strength in certain ways. But physical strength was almost inevitable in those days; it was part of Victorian courtship. Even on her wedding night a woman might be expected to resist."
Polanski got to his feet to
return to the cutting rooms. He stopped at his desk and drew out of a large
folder the Tess poster, which he himself designed. "I think I
should put something in the background," he said. "Perhaps
He pulled out a print of
Turner's painting of
Philippe Sarde's apartment, Polanski's own vision
Even as an isolated shot, the scene has a magic tension and stillness. Nastassia Kinski's voice not only lays to rest all dialect worries – her Dorset accent rings wholly true – but it suggests that she can also encompass the nobility of Tess and her dark, melancholy pride.
As Polanski drove me to the airport, I said I thought the danger with most period movies was that they tended to congeal into a series of beautiful pictures. We see recent history through newsreels and documentaries – live, rough-hewn, moving images – but precinematic history is only seen through inert tableaux: paintings, drawings, still photographs.
"There are dangers
like that with a period film," Polanski said as he weaved his Mercedes
A beeping sound interrupted Polanski. His Mercedes is studded with gadgets and gewgaws and a powerful stereo system. He picked up a telephone neatly hidden between the front seats: The screen, he learned, had collapsed again.
Polanski accelerated. "Emotion," he said, "is the main thing in all art. Art has to move, and if it doesn't, it doesn't leave a lasting impression. There are many ways to move people – to tears, to laughter, to fear. I think with Tess that we're dealing with such strong material that we mustn't be worried about beautiful pictures. The story itself is so interesting, the girl is so moving, and the film itself is filled with universal human emotions."
"Tess, you must remember", he continued, "was a pure woman. It was Hardy's subtitle to the book. She broke Victorian moral codes, but she responded to natural law, to nature, her nature. That's what the whole book is about. The film is an accusation of the hypocrisy and injustice of that rigid society – and by extension of any rigid and repressive society."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 1979 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.