Obsession and Confession 

Roman Polanski Can't Escape Himself

TESS “No thanks. No, really. I’m good.”

TESS “No thanks. No, really. I’m good.”

I SUPPOSE it's possible to separate Roman Polanski's work from the lurid details of his biography. But his films are a lot more interesting if you don't.

For example, 1979's Tess is, on its surface, a faithful, almost painterly adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The period details and costumes are exacting; the photography is immaculate; the dialogue is crisply pronounced in all the proper accents. But when you learn that Polanski's wife Sharon Tate gave him a copy of Hardy's novel just before she was murdered by the Manson Family (a small line in the opening credits reads "To Sharon"), and when you take into account Polanski's 1977 rape of an underage girl, Tess becomes an unsettling meditation on innocence and its inescapable loss—it's a film full of grief and remorse.

Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is a poor—but beautiful!—peasant girl sent to work for her wealthy cousin Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson). After he rapes her, she births a baby that dies in infancy, and runs far away to escape her cousin's clutches. She meets and falls in love with the milquetoast-y, handsome Angel Clare (Peter Firth), but when she confesses her past on their wedding night, the idiot rejects her and moves to Brazil.

Tess is meant to be a suffering, shining beacon of beauty, but Kinski gives the character a surprising amount of gravity—we watch her heart visibly harden in more than one scene. And like Tess herself, Polanski's film is pretty on the surface, but its dark undercurrents are what make it worthwhile. Without the context of the director's own life, Tess is a three-hour costume drama—a perfectly competent, even ravishing one. But when you take Polanski's history into consideration, it becomes a grippingly uneasy take on a girl's corruption at the hands of men's selfish desires, rendered by a man who, at varying times, found himself on either end of that equation.

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