Cast & Crew
Peasant girl Tess Durbeyfield is sent to live with the wealthy d'Urbervilles by her father after he learns that they are distantly related. However, the d'Urbervilles are not relatives, they're just a family that bought the noble line's name.
Pascale De Boysson
Brigid Erin Bates
Marc Ludovic Paris
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Best Costume Design
Tess on Blu-ray
Hardy's tale, to which the film is very faithful, is about a poor English girl, Tess, whose father learns he is a distant descendant of a once prominent, rich family, the D'Urbervilles. He sends Tess to the home of a remaining D'Urberville to find employment (or at least a handout), but Tess winds up being seduced by the ne'er-do-well Alec D'Urberville (Leigh Lawson), who becomes obsessed with her. Fleeing Alec, she eventually finds work at a dairy farm and starts a passionate relationship with a young farmer named Angel Clare (Peter Firth). But in this society, the revelation of the sins of her past, even if they were not her fault, could doom Tess to shame, ostracism and worse. Ultimately, Tess is about a woman struggling to make her way in the world, looking for happiness, or at least survival, but finding that a judgmental society, timing and even luck are all working against her.
Polanski explores this theme vividly, sympathetically and cinematically. Costumes, speech and physical mannerisms of the actors all convince the audience of the time period and of the distinctions among the social classes, and the film's pictorial beauty does much to stress the contrasting cruelty of some of the characters. The movie is not "pretty" for prettiness' sake. Most important, one really feels the isolation of Tess throughout the film, which is at once sprawling and intimate. The plot itself, while important, feels less vital here than the depiction of Tess' emotional experience of the world she is forced to inhabit, and as a result, the long running time feels entirely appropriate and never tedious.
Tess was shot entirely in France, mostly on locations in Normandy and Brittany, because Polanski worried that if he traveled to England he would be extradited to the United States. Polanski later wrote, "To tell the story at all, it was essential to find the proper setting, a twentieth-century equivalent of Hardy's nineteenth-century Dorset. The only way to convey the rhythm of his epic was to use that setting as an integral part of the film, signaling the passage of time and the change in Tess herself by means of a visible, almost palpable change in seasons. Once our rural locations were chosen, we would have to film throughout the year from early spring, through high summer, to the depths of winter." With such a shooting strategy, filming wound up lasting nine months over 80 separate locations, and Tess became, at $12 million, the most expensive film ever made in France to that point. Freak weather and labor strikes only added to the overall time and expense.
If Tess is atypical of Polanski, it's in the way that The Age of Innocence (1993) is atypical of director Martin Scorsese. But in fact, both films are completely emblematic of their directors' concerns and are indeed suffused with violence. It's just that the violence is emotional, an undercurrent beneath a pristine surface -- exactly like the societies the films depict.
That being said, it's hard to shake some of Tess's most exquisitely beautiful imagery, such as the lovely natural light of an outdoor dance, or the riders and dogs on a fox hunt who appear out of a sublime mist, or the face of Nastassia Kinski, who is heart-stoppingly gorgeous (a quality, incidentally, that is vital to the story). Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who had shot such films as Becket (1964) and Cabaret (1972), died a few weeks into production and was replaced by Ghislain Cloquet, who sadly would himself pass away two years later. They shared the Oscar for Best Cinematography. The film also won for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Score.
Criterion's dual-format release contains one Blu-ray disc and two DVDs, with both formats containing the film and identical extras. And there are plenty, starting with three short documentaries about the film's making (originally included in Columbia's 2004 DVD release), directed by Laurent Bouzereau and totaling 73 minutes in length. Bouzereau expertly interviews key players like Polanski, producers Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill, co-writer John Brownjohn, actors Nastassia Kinski and Leigh Lawson, set decorator Pierre Guffroy, costume designer Anthony Powell, hair and makeup artists, the crew electrician, the assistant editor and others. The artists discuss fascinating details of production, like the challenge of getting the "strawberry seduction" scene between Kinski and Lawson just right (which astonishingly was shot on a rainy day despite looking on-screen like the height of warm summer), the creation of the Stonehenge set outside of Paris, and the design of the costumes to be authentic and truly expressive of character -- beautiful without being decorative. Powell is fascinating as he discusses his approach, and also about the little splotch of blood he put on the hem of Tess' dress at a key point in the story, which Polanski shot for maximum impact.
Burrill recalls that on location the filmmakers were only able to see the rushes days after shooting, rather than the next day, and not always under the best conditions. But gradually, he says, "we started to see what was happening, the magic that was coming off the screen, and the extraordinary professionalism of Nastassia.... I don't think there was ever one day when she fluffed a line. She was word-perfect, always."
Second is a 52-minute documentary from 2006 by Daniel Ablin and Serge July entitled Once Upon a Time... Tess. This is also interesting, but it covers much of the same material as the Bouzereau pieces, with many of the same interviewees telling the same stories. It's also not as smoothly edited. But unlike the Bouzereau film, it includes composer Philippe Sarde, and delves more into Polanski's pre-Tess life and career. It also recounts the difficulties in Tess's post-production, particularly concerning the running time. Francis Coppola was brought in by producer Claude Berri to trim the film, which was deemed overlong, but Polanski hated the result, leading to a falling-out between Berri and Polanski and between Polanski and Sarde. Polanski himself eventually trimmed the film by about 20 minutes, resulting in the current running time of 171 minutes.
Third, there's a 1979 episode of the French TV program Cine Regards, running 48 minutes, that looks at the making of Tess and interviews Polanski during the film's production. The interviews with Polanski are revealing, but the real strengths of the piece are the long, uninterrupted slices of life on the set as Polanski directs and thinks through scenes, conducting his orchestra of crewmembers. These sequences go on long enough to make us feel as if we are there.
Fourth is a 1979 episode of the British TV program The South Bank Show, 50 minutes in length, in which host Melvyn Bragg interviews Polanski. And Criterion rounds things out with the film's trailer as well as a handsome printed booklet containing a fine essay by Colin MacCabe and crisp, colorful photos from the film, almost all of which feature the entrancing Nastassia Kinski. It's a beautiful package and motion picture, all very highly recommended.
By Jeremy Arnold
Tess on Blu-ray
Tess Durbeyfield is a peasant living in "Wessex," Hardy's name for Dorset, the southwestern region of England where most of his novels are set. After a local minister tells Tess's father that they are the descendants of the noble D'Urbervilles, her parents send her to seek employment with the present-day D'Urbervilles, wealthy commoners who have purchased the title. Tess catches the eye of the family's dissolute son, Alec, who seduces her. Pregnant, she returns to her family. After her child dies, she works at a dairy farm, where she meets Angel Clare, an idealistic son of a clergyman who is learning to be a farmer. The two fall in love and marry, but when Tess confesses her past, her tragic descent begins.
Polanski was a French citizen, so after leaving the U.S. in early 1978 he settled in Paris. His longtime friend, French producer Claude Berri, was enthusiastic about making a film version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and secured financing for the film. Location shooting took place in France, in Normandy and Brittany, not only because much of the landscape was still rural and resembled 19th century Britain more than modern Dorset did, but also because Polanski was afraid to work in Britain, which had an extradition agreement with the United States, and France did not.
Polanski had met Nastassja Kinski, the daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski, two years earlier, when she was 15. He photographed her for French Vogue, and they had a brief affair. Berri agreed with Polanski that Kinski had the youthful beauty to play Tess (critics later commented on her startling resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman), but both were concerned about her German accent. She worked with a dialogue coach for months, and while she never entirely got rid of the accent, the trace that remains adds to the sense of "otherness" about Tess.
Location shooting in the French countryside took nine months, covered all four seasons, and included building a replica of Stonehenge outside of Paris. While much of the landscape still looked as it had a century earlier, production crews repeatedly had to cover paved roads with dirt and gravel for the many shots of walking and riding over country lanes, and to find creative ways to avoid or conceal utility wires. Weather and labor strikes also caused delays.
Location shooting wasn't the only hardship the crew faced during the making of Tess. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth died suddenly of a heart attack just a few weeks into production. Within days, Ghislain Cloquet -- who had worked with Robert Bresson, Jacques Demy, and Arthur Penn -- quickly stepped in and completed the film, after carefully studying the footage Unsworth had shot. His work was so seamless that both men won the Oscar® for cinematography.
Because Polanski had set out to film Hardy's entire novel, he made the decision early on that Tess would be as long as it needed to be. The version that opened in France in 1979 was three hours long, and was well-received there. Berri felt that it would be easier to find an American distributor if the film were shorter. Editor Sam O'Steen, who had worked with Polanski on Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), made additional cuts, but Polanski was not satisfied with that version. Director Francis Ford Coppola considered distributing it and flew to Paris to look at the film. Among his suggestions were beginning the film with turning pages of the book, and a voiceover narration, neither of which were acceptable to Polanski. Finally, Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin, who had seen Polanski's original cut of Tess at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, gave it a glowing review in the paper, and Columbia agreed to distribute it at 172 minutes. It opened in the U.S. in December of 1980, more than a year after it had opened in Europe, just in time for Academy Awards® consideration.
Most American critics shared Champlin's enthusiasm. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "A beautifully visualized period piece....the kind of exploration of doomed young sexuality that...makes us agree that the lovers should never grow old." In the New York Times, Janet Maslin compared the film favorably to the work of David Lean, calling it "a lovely, lyrical, unexpectedly delicate movie." The New Yorker's Pauline Kael was one of the few dissenters, objecting to Tess's burnished beauty: "Hardy's account is raw and sexual; Polanski's movie is lush, ripe, settled....You can't help being upset by the novel; it's all morally open for you to puzzle over...But Polanski, who is such a wizard at perversity, and whose specialty was characters in a double bind, goes soft."
At Oscar® time, Tess earned six nominations and won three: for Unsworth's and Cloquet's cinematography; Pierre Guffroy's and Jack Stephens's art direction; and Anthony Powell's impeccable costume design, which included not only re-creations of period clothing, but actually some antique clothes from the era, among them a threadbare jacket worn by Peter Firth's Angel Clare. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, director, and Philippe Sarde's original music score. More than twenty years later, Polanski finally won a Best Director Oscar®, for 2002's The Pianist. Still a fugitive from American justice, Polanski did not attend the ceremonies to claim his award.
Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Claude Berri
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, based on the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth, Ghislain Cloquet
Editor: Alastair McIntyre, Tom Priestley
Costume Design: Anthony Powell
Art Direction: Pierre Guffroy, Jack Stephens
Music: Philippe Sarde
Principal Cast: Nastassja [credited as "Nastassia"] Kinski (Tess Durbeyfield), Peter Firth (Angel Clare), Leigh Lawson (Alec Stokes-D'Urberville), John Collin (John Durbeyfield), Rosemary Martin (Mrs. Durbeyfield), Carolyn Pickles (Miriam), Richard Pearson (Vicar of Marlott), David Markham (Rev. Clare), Pascale de Boysson (Mrs. Clare), Suzanna Hamilton (Izz Huett)
by Margarita Landazuri
Tess on DVD
Synopsis: A parson tells the penniless Mr. Durbeyfield (John Collin) that he's a descendant of the d'Urbervilles, a noble line long since fallen. His daughter Tess is dispatched to the local d'Urberville mansion to ask for charity and is given a job by the dissolute Alec d'Urberville.
After he seduces her, Tess flees back home in disgrace and dismay. She later finds a happier job at a dairy farm and falls in love with Angel Clare (Peter Firth), an idealistic preacher's son. But Tess' determination to be honest with Angel about her past causes her no end of grief.
Tess Durbeyfield is cursed by the discovery of her family's noble past. It's the last thing her ne'er-do-well father needed to know, as his newly found pride is a convenient excuse to stop being even minimally responsible for his family. Tess is expected to wheedle the cost of a new horse out of distant relatives. They turn out to actually be named Stokes, having bought the d'Urberville title years ago. Old Mrs. d'Urberville is a blind, dotty nut that likes to pet her chickens, and her son Alec leverages every advantage of his wealth and security to possess girls like Tess. She's totally unprepared and easy prey for the dishonest cad. Pregnant and betrayed by her family and the church, she's one of Polanski's tragically isolated heroines.
Tess builds upon themes from Polanski's short films Mammals and The Fat and the Lean: People will always exploit other people if they can get away with it, and most of the exploited will accept the injustice. As in The Fearless Vampire Killers, the "bad" element that wants to despoil the world for its own selfish ends is just doing what comes naturally, sucking blood or demanding rent. Tess lives in a civilized, beautiful country where a woman outside the narrow bounds of social acceptability is at great risk. The rich ride in coaches while ordinary milkmaids must deal with muddy roads blocking the way to church. Not going to church is unacceptable. Getting to church with a muddy dress is unacceptable. Allowing a young man to carry you over the mud is doubly unacceptable. The forces of goodness are just another source of oppression.
Tess Durbeyfield eventually goes down to defeat, cursed by her father's pride and her own beauty. She's also victimized by gullibililty, bad luck and the need for honesty and truth in her life. She divulges her past to Angel, who she mistakenly thinks is worthy of her. Bad timing ruins her second hope for happiness, and again Tess states that she wishes that she could die, or had never been born.
Tess is an intimate epic that creates a 19th century world where progressive threshing machines are transforming an ancient landscape. The beautiful cinematography doesn't resort to pretty pictures for its effects, and Philippe Sarde's romantic music almost seems to mock Tess' pain and suffering. Polanski uses uncommon restraint when it comes to scenes of a baby's death and a murder. The latter is represented only by a bloodstain on a ceiling.
The acting is uniformly excellent, with Nastassia Kinski's heroine an alarmingly wonderful find. Peter Firth is appropriately dreamy as the young idealist, and Leigh Lawson memorably domineering. The rest of the accomplished cast play an assortment of typically isolated and confused Polanski characters. Suzanna Hamilton has a special moment as another milkmaid who loves Angel from afar.
Columbia's Special Edition DVD of Tess features a fine enhanced 2:35 transfer, richly colored and marked only by an errant scratch or two. The added extra is a lengthy (70 minute) Laurent Bouzereau documentary broken down into three parts. Numerous crewpeople and actors are interviewed and both author Thomas Hardy and the mostly French production are covered in fascinating detail. Ms. Kinski was only 17 at the time, and the director describes the process of getting clearance from his French producers to let a German girl play a classic English heroine. Writer John Brownjohn tells us his dialogue rewrite uses the correct local dialect - he lived only a few feet away from the real English pub described in Hardy's novel.
The packaging is a plain keep case bearing images of Nastassja Kinski that don't do justice to her beauty. Columbia's liner notes give away practically every detail of the story, and misspell Ms. Kinski's name in the bargain.
To order Tess, go to TCM Shopping.
By Glenn Erickson
Tess on DVD
Set in England but filmed in France, as director Roman Polanski was wanted on sex-related charges in the United States and could have been extradited from England.
This film was dedicated to Polanski's wife Sharon Tate, who was murdered under orders from Charles Manson. Tate gave Polanski a copy of the novel as she boarded the liner back to the United States, the last time they would see each other.
Polanski dedicated this movie to his late wife, Sharon Tate, who was killed in 1969 by the Manson Clan. Before her death, she had read the novel by Thomas Hardy and was convinced that her husband would one day make a great film based on the novel. The dedication in the beginning of the film simply states "For Sharon".
The United Kingdom
Released in United States Winter December 12, 1980
Released in United States Winter December 12, 1980