A man walks down a country road. Let’s say he’s middle-aged, but this is Victorian England, and that period had a way of making men from the struggling class middle-aged with one foot in the grave. The man—his name is Durbyfield—stops to converse with a parson, who casually informs him of a recent discovery he made: the Durbyfields are descendants of the d’Urbervilles, and thus connected to the old aristocracy. The clan’s all but died out, the money and property long gone, but that name: it changes the man’s identity in a moment. More importantly, it will radically alter the destiny of the man’s daughter, our story’s tragic heroine.
Names. We’re talking about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the adaptation directed by Roman Polanski, produced by Claude Berri, and starring Nastassja Kinski. That’s one Pole, one Frenchman and one German taking control of a much beloved, terribly English literary classic. The Brits were not happy when they heard the news, nor when they learned that Polanski would film Tess (1979) not in Hardy’s Dorset, but rather in Brittany. The fact that Polanski, a fugitive by then, might have faced extradition if he went to the U.K. surely had something to do with the choice of location, but the truth is that Brittany felt much closer to Victorian Dorset than the Dorset of the ’70s; that Polanski’s childhood experiences, hiding his Jewishness and living in rural Poland during the war that stole his parents and murdered his mother (she died in Auschwitz), granted him an ability to relate to Tess in ways your average bankable director couldn’t (what’s more, Polanski was first given Hardy’s novel by his wife Sharon Tate, just before she was murdered); and Kinski, still in her teens when production began, not only had precisely the look that Hardy carefully detailed in the novel, but also had an innate intelligence and an instinct for conveying Tess’ brutal accumulation of hardships, which include manipulation, rape, heartbreak, gruelling labour and persecution, some of which Kinski herself, as the much neglected daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski, would have understood. (Weighed against all she brings to the role, Kinski’s variable accent seems forgivable.) All this to say that we’re talking about an adaptation as extraordinary as it is unlikely, a meticulous, transporting, painterly film, drawing upon the work of George de la Tour and Gustave Courbet and photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet with an alluring mix of natural elements and obvious artifice, that tells a story about how names can mean everything and nothing. Tess is now available from Criterion in a dual format DVD/Blu-ray set.
“You were one person, now you’re another.” So says Angel Clare (Peter Firth), this chump Tess falls for, a guy who can’t bear the fact that Tess has a past, who basically punishes her for being a victim. A chump, yet Angel is also correct—Tess is, in a sense, another person. She was another person when she was Tess Durbyville; another person when she met Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), the creep who bought her family name and used it to seduce her, and when the seduction didn’t take, rape her; another person when she found something like love; another person when she herself finally commits a heinous act. (Henious, but also a saint? There’s a scene where, if you look carefully, you’ll notice a halo around Tess’ head created by a steam engine.) Identity is fluid in Tess—another theme Polanski would have understood well. For some insight into just how well, check out the episode of The South Bank Show included in Criterion’s supplements. It’s a wide-ranging, nearly hour-long interview with the director at a very particular moment in his often troubled, often troubling, often brilliant career.