I’m hugely fond of Thomas Hardy’s novels, having started graduate study in the topic of Victorian literature. What appeals to me is how Hardy tried to write complex women struggling with and against 19th-century moral strictures, without sentimentalizing or sensationalizing women. He did an admirable job considering his own biases and strained relationships with the women in his life. One of his greatest and perhaps best-known works is Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891). And the first and best filmed adaption of this novel is Tess (1979).
The synopsis is essentially: a village girl goes to work for a gentry family (that’s supposedly distant relations), she’s raped by the young man in that family, she gets pregnant, and the baby dies; later, she meets another man, they fall in love and marry, but her new husband leaves her when she admits her past; she agrees to be the first man’s concubine to support her family, but her husband returns, she kills the rapist man, the end.
Also relevant is that this adaption of Tess was directed and co-written by Roman Polanski. In 1977, this Polish-French director was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles. He agreed to a plea bargain of unlawful sex with a minor, but when he heard the judge was going to sentence him to 50 years in prison, Polanski fled the U.S. for France. He’s been a controversial subject ever since — including more recent allegations of rape and sexual abuse. His most recent film, An Officer and a Spy aka J’accuse, was nominated for 12 César Awards in January 2020, causing members of the nominating board to resign in protest. At the award ceremony, when Polanski won the best director award, even though he wasn’t present, Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Adèle Haenel walked out, saying, “Bravo la pédophilie!”
So, how can you reconcile a horrible person with the art they’ve created? Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. Obviously, it’s a personal choice. I’ll say that when I first watched Tess, soon after it came out, I didn’t know anything about Polanski. I only knew the book, and I loved this film because it felt faithful to the Hardy’s work. Later, after learning of Polanski’s actions, it did affect my understanding of the film, but in a strange way. There’s an irony, as if Polanski is presenting this story of a young woman who is raped, showing her innocence, showing how society mistreats her and judges her — just like Hardy’s novel did — and I can’t tell if Polanski doesn’t get it or it’s a weird sort of apology that he’s working out on-screen. The film understands Hardy’s work, but I can’t tell if Polanski does.
Further, the movie is dedicated to Sharon Tate, Polanski’s pregnant wife who was murdered by the Charles Manson clan in 1969. Tate had given Polanski the book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the director planned for his wife to star in the adaption. Nastassja Kinski taking on the role actually makes Tess younger and more accurate to the book — Tate was 26 at the time of her death, and Kinski was 17 when she filmed the movie. But the death of a pregnant woman subtly haunts the film, just like her baby’s premature death haunts the character of Tess. (It must be said that there were rumors of an affair between Polanski and Kinski but both deny it. Nastassja Kinski says the director “was like a big brother or a father figure to me” and “he had respect for me.”)
If you didn’t know any of this watching the movie and just knew the book, I think you’d have an excellent experience and understand this much of this film. Knowing who made it and what was going on in their life adds layers of complexity, and I think that’s worth exploring. I don’t think the filmmaker’s life and actions should automatically mean canceling or dismissing whatever art they made though.
The most pointed complaint that can be made about Tess is that it’s a 1970s male take on a Victorian man’s reaction to Victorian patriarchal oppression of female sexuality (something Pauline Kael in The New Yorker commented on in 1980). Thus, this film — like the novel — is never from a woman’s point of view, and in some ways treats the main character like an inscrutable object. She is used and abused, first by the men in the story for their pleasures and sanctimonious ways, and then by the male storytellers to make their points about society. Tess is a cipher for male action and opinion. Her final act of defiance gains nothing for her and is a mere rhetorical device. The film and the novel reveal society’s intolerance and cruelty using Tess as the mere victim.
Costumes in Tess
At the time, Tess was the most expensive film ever produced in France, topping $12 million. Most of this was due to the long nine-month shooting schedule (including a two-month delay due to a strike) and the expense of recreating the English countryside in northern France. Polanski couldn’t film in the U.K. due to possible extradition to America on his rape charges. So his art direction team and costume designer did all their research in Britain first, in order to build Thomas Hardy’s world in a different country. But some of the expense does show up in the costumes, which are very fine quality and well researched.
Anthony Powell designed the costumes in this movie and won the Oscar for this work. Previously, he’d created the costumes for Travels With My Aunt (1972) and Death on the Nile (1978) and won Oscars for both. After Tess, he did the costumes for films such as Evil Under the Sun (1982), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Hook (1991), 101 Dalmatians (1996), and Miss Potter (2006).
The film is set in the late 1880s — towards the end of the movie, Tess’s father dies and we see his headstone with the date of 1888, and the events of story take about two or three years. Powell visited rural museums and poured through junk shops in Britain to find photos of late-19th-century rural life for inspiration. With this research, Powell convinced the director that, yes, women wore stays and multiple petticoats even when working in the fields. Indeed, the outfits for the lower-class ‘peasant’ women in this film are as complex, detailed, and historically accurate as the few upper-class extravagant gowns. Powell created realistic rural clothing, not sloppy rags as sometimes happens for poor, farming characters. As Leigh Lawton, who plays Alec d’Urbervilles, says in the 2004 From Novel to Screen DVD extra documentary: “Anthony Powell is touched with genius, and he is meticulous. … There was nothing, absolutely nothing that escaped Anthony Powell’s eagle eye.”
Powell gave these supposedly simple peasant clothes exquisite fit and details, and he used soft small prints that evoke the period. In an interview with BFI, he discussed how and where these came about:
“Now, at the time we were doing Tess, Laura Ashley was making these beautiful romantic dresses using fabrics that were all exact reproductions of 19th-century printed cottons. So I went there with my assistant, wonderful Joanna Johnston, thinking they’d have loads of stuff that we could buy by-the-yard. Which indeed they did. And I just happened to mention that we wanted to use these printed cottons for quite a few of the costumes for the film, because I thought they’d like to know, and they said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that; you’d have to get permission.’
And the joke is that Joanna somehow knew Laura Ashley, and some time after the film came out, she was staying with the Ashleys at their country house. Now, Laura didn’t know that Joanna had worked on Tess, and after dinner on Saturday night, she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but we always watch Tess on Saturday nights, because it’s just full of such good ideas that we can copy!’ Isn’t that the funniest thing ever? The shop wouldn’t let us use them because we’d need permission, but they’re nicking all the ideas.”
In the 2004 DVD extra documentary, From Novel to Screen, director Roman Polanski said of Antony Powell’s work:
“He really gave the look of the picture. The actors look authentic, they don’t look disguised and that’s because Anthony understands their aspect. And he would go to all costume makers and try to find old stuff, authentic things. Many of the clothes were authentic 19th-century clothes that he would dig out, some of them were literally falling apart.”
Historical research and period materials formed the basis of Powell’s costume design, but he was also creating a story through costume. He orchestrated a distinctive color theme for the film and especially for what the main character wore, as he explained in the DVD extra documentary from 2006 titled, Once Upon a Time … Tess:
“In the film, quite deliberately, I used only whites and off whites and the sort of colors, for the men, for instance, that one finds in the countryside and in the nature, the browns and greens that just disappear into the landscape. But there’s no color in film at all until the scene, right at the end of the film, where she’s killed Alec. I said to Roman, ‘I know it sounds corny and it sounds obvious, but I think we should only use color in that one scene, and she’s in red dress, and it should be the color of dried blood.’ So that’s what we did. Now that’s the dress that everyone remembers because it’s a shock.”
The pale and natural color scheme is distinctive. We first see Tess and a group of women dancing at sunset, all of them dressed entirely in white. This comes straight from the book, where Hardy writes about the ‘walking club’ of the town as being the descendant of pagan customs:
“The banded ones were all dressed in white gowns — a gay survival from Old-Style days, when cheerfulness and Maytime were synonymous. … Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedge and creeper-laced house-fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a bluish pallor; some worn by the older characters (which had possibly lain by folded for many a year) inclined to a cadaverous tint, and to a Georgian style.”
At the dairy where Tess meets Angel Clare, she’s often in white and specifically a white blouse that seems either skimpy or practical, I can’t decide.
The men’s clothes are in neutral tones, darker than Tess’s white and pale prints, but still blending in to the scenes. In From Novel to Screen, Powell says:
“The characters of the two men Alec and Angel Clare are totally contrasted, and Roman cast two actors who physically were completely unalike. So really, it was just my job to accentuate those differences.”
“With Alec everything was always very sharp and clear and hard, all blacks and whites, things that were graphic and very powerful.”
“Whereas Angel Clare was a much more amorphous kind of character in beiges and browns and greens, and he kind of slotted into the countryside background. He looked much gentler, and he’s also a rather weak character. There were no strong tonal values on him, it was all middle tones, no strong contrasts.”
But let’s get to the two most magnificent costumes in the film, which act like mirror images of each other in meaning. First is Tess’s wedding gown, an 1880s confection that seems a bit too rich for the character and setting. In the novel, Hardy describes Tess thinking about what Angel would want her to wear at their wedding:
“She wondered whether he would like her to be married in her present best white frock, or if she ought to buy a new one. The question was set at rest by his forethought, disclosed by the arrival of some large packages addressed to her. Inside them she found a whole stock of clothing, from bonnet to shoes, including a perfect morning costume such as would well suit the simple wedding they planned.”
Angel Clare is a gentleman and can afford new clothes for his fiancee, but this dress is such of the latest fashion that it seems out of place in rural Wessex. Of course, that does make the wedding stand out, as it is one of the dramatic peaks of the film.
Tess and Angel’s marriage is very short-lived, and she quickly goes back to wearing simple garb. As she leaves Angel, she wears this brown and dark red ensemble that I feel is a hint at things to come. Despite what Anthony Powell says, this is first time we see her wearing color before the murder — plus, that bonnet ribbon is the color of dried blood!
Eventually, Tess returns to Alec and becomes his mistress, taking money from him to support her destitute family. We get a short scene of her as a kept woman.
And finally, she does the deed and is driven to kill her abuser. She puts on the red dress and finds Angel again. And the dress is magnificent. As Powell says in the DVD extra from 2004, Tess: The Experience: “I’ve always felt very strongly that one shouldn’t be afraid of being obvious if it’s actually the right thing to do.”
If you’re a Thomas Hardy fan, of course, you can’t help but love this film adaption. It really does capture the essence of the novel on-screen in many, many ways. Tess is a fine example of a literary adaption on film, despite the unpleasant history of the movie’s director.
What do you think of Tess?