PG, but there's some content. Mind you, a lot of it happens off screen. But Tess is fundamentally about sexual assault, domestic abuse, and murder. I shouldn't have to mention that it also has a heavy dose of alcoholism. Really, the movie is pretty sadistic to the eponymous character, so the PG is really a 1979 version of PG.
DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski
I don't even want to write a hook paragraph this week, guys. I know that I only have a few things to say about Tess, but know that most of this blog will be a study of the hypocrisy of Roman Polanski. There, I spoiled it. In terms of how I ended up watching this movie, I actually was an idiot and didn't realize that it was an adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which happens to be my reference for deep cut AP Lit. It's been years since I've read Tess of the d'Urbervilles, so I can't even comment if the film is a faithful adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel. But I will be speaking with the full authority of an English teacher, despite the fact that I'm woefully prepared for this, only having remembered snippets from my read of the book ages ago.
I said I was going to talk about Roman Polanski, so let's talk about Roman Polanski. I don't know if this blog has made me want to talk about shifting politics or not, but I feel like I've been becoming visibly more progressive as I've written this blog. I suppose when you are writing from a critical perspective, you have to be willing to admit that your politics need to be re-evaluated over and over again. This is the movie he made after his statutory rape accusation where he fled the United States. It would be irresponsible to watch this movie without that as the context. Tess finds its villain in the sexual assault of Tess. Tess starts the film almost as a tabula rasa. She doesn't have much of a personality. She is innocent and doting to her parents, who might be less than deserving of Tess's respect. It's when she meets Alec d'Urberville, that the inciting incident occurs. Tess is defined, unfortunately, by her sexual assault. It is the burden of physical beauty that perpetuates her victimization. (This, of course, is the crime of the man. I am pointing out that it is his verbal excuse for why Tess gets attention when other women don't.)
Before losing the thread of Roman Polanski, I do find it fascinating that there's such a large emphasis on the notion that Alec is not actually a d'Urberville. I can't help but see the metaphor of rape as a means of possession. Alec finds power in taking the name of d'Urberville in place of his own weak name. However, there's an artificiality to that power. It's not real, much like sexual assault doesn't reflect an actual relationship. By raping Tess, he is attempting to validate his own perceived power that is meant to be associated with the d'Urberville name. While the woman holds the real power, the title of d'Urberville, Alec perverts that connection by pretending that his imagined relationship with Tess validates the thing that he's been lying about during his adult life. It's why Alec kind of perceives that he's the good guy of the film. He views himself as a flawed hero. He keeps trying to bestow all these riches and comforts on Tess, who for most of the film refuses to acknowledge that there was anything healthy about the power dynamic between Alec and herself. But he sees himself as a spurned lover, one who finds his passions to be unquenchable and, through that lens, romantic.
But now back to Polanski. Does he not see Tess of the d'Urbervilles as a condemnation of his own character? If he's aware of this, and he is being self-flagellating like Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, then I don't know if that is really being conveyed. Because there's a terrible meta irony to the piece as a whole. Polanski demonizes both Alec and Angel in the piece. Really, every male in this story is extremely problematic. With Angel, he's given a fairly weak redemption arc. But the other male characters are either borderline criminal or are overtly criminal in their treatment of womankind through Tess as its representative. Perhaps I too am blinded by my own attempt to be progressive and am doing the same thing with this blog, but I do have to call Polanski out for being a monster and a hypocrite. Polanski seduced a 13 year old girl. He held a power over her that could not be reciprocated in any meaningful way. Alec goes through this journey where he thinks that he is wholly realized. Knowing that the assault in the woods was criminal, he recontextualizes it to be a lapse in judgement, therefore being a kind of forbidden fruit. When Alec meets up with Tess later in the story, he claims to be a more actualized responsible human being.
But he's not. Polanski throwing stones at Alec seems like such a moment of poor taste, considering that he IS Alec. I could also make the case that he wants to be Angel. Angel, I almost have problems with than Alec. Okay, that's not true. But I really like hating Angel. Angel has the potential to be a really interesting character. Angel may have gone on this entire redemption arc. The problem is...the story isn't about Angel. The story aggressively focuses on only Tess's perspective. Okay, that's not technically true. But I'll say the majority of the film is only from Tess's perspective. For all we know, Angel's claim that he has suffered as well and come out the other side. That's possible. But since we never really get to experience that, it all seems really cheap when he says that he has suffered too. If anything, it is the most insulting thing that he could possibly say in that moment. Polanski knows what he's doing here. He knows that we're supposed to hate Angel. But she goes back to him in that moment. I don't really get the forgiveness of that moment, outside of the fact that she's probably just tired of being miserable.
But Polanski wants to be Alec. He wants that kind of forgiveness from others. But I really have to stress that Angel hasn't earned that. The reason that Tess forgives him is not that Angel has somehow transformed into a better human being. It is because Tess chose Angel and Angel rejected her at her most vulnerable. Polanski is kind of doing the same. We know that Tess can't be miserable with Alec for the rest of the story. For as poor as she is for a good chunk of the film, she is the saddest when she is married to Alec. The villain had won and she was doomed to live a life of emotional and mental torture, married to her rapist. Tess only goes to Angel because an audience demands some degree of solace in this emotional torture porn that is Tess. Polanski is almost subconsciously screaming, "What I did was wrong, but wouldn't we all be happier if we just move on?" He is making this movie about male fragility and can't see that he's potentially the most harmful version of his characters in the film. It's really gross.
It's a gorgeous movie, if not damningly slow. But I can't divorce the artist from the art in this one. Like Woody Allen, the content is way too on-the-nose to watch it without historical context. It's a non-apology for something that is abhorrent and I don't really get how this movie exists.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.