(an “is it a film or a novel?” review by Timothy J. Verret)
This movie poster for TESS brings back some very fond memories for me. I had this exact poster on my bedroom wall when I was in high school. While other high school boys had pictures of models or the latest action or comic book hero on their walls, I had this movie poster. The captivating and haunting eyes of Tess just mesmerized me. And speaking of captivating and haunting and mesmerizing, I kid you not that there is no single film I have ever seen that is more beautiful to look at than Roman Polanski’s TESS. In fact, this film is so beautiful that I’m left to question, “is it a film or a novel?” A film as beautiful to watch as TESS is makes us feel that we are reading the novel it’s based on, TESS OF THE D’UBERVILLES by Thomas Hardy. What is so beautiful that is TESS is what is so beautiful that it’s more than just a “pretty picture” (or “pretty words” on a page).
From the opening frame (or page) to the final frame (or page), TESS is a delight for all our physical and spiritual senses. I love to watch and read things that are beautiful. I like beautiful images or words that tease The Romantic Enneagram 4 that I am. But as much as I like the beautiful, I also like the brutal (BOTH “B’s”). The life of Tess of the D’uberviles is BOTH beautiful AND brutal. Nastassja Kinski who plays Tess is extremely beautiful to look at and extremely well-cast to pull off this ever-so-demanding lead role. A well-known actress cast as Tess would have killed the spirit of Tess, so it took a relative unknown actress to give Tess that innocence that was so needed. Of course, Tess’ external beauty was the primary (or only) “lead and cause” of an external rape. As the movie poster states, in Tess’ time, it was called seduction, NOT rape. Tess’ time OR this time, it IS rape! And rape IS brutal! It is a taking advantage of someone sexually against their will. It is also, of course, taking control of someone sexually against their will. This happened to Tess, and it forever changed the course of her life for the worse, as most (if not all) rapes tend to do.
It is purely a miraculous feat that a film could be SO beautiful and SO brutal at the same time, but therein lies the magical masterpiece of TESS. It would have been of the most brutal of all crimes if TESS had NOT won Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Art Design, and Best Costume Design. The film is a joy to watch and behold and, as mentioned, a joy to read and behold. As one watches this film, the beauty of the artistic and picturesque designs are like illustrious words on a page.
Look at this filmed image:
To this day, from this miraculous-filmed image, anytime I see a sun like this, I call it the “Tess sun.”
Director Polanski must have spent many lifetimes getting every shot of TESS to absolute perfection, every artistic and costume design sumptuous and satisfying to all our physical and spiritual senses. The film feels like it must have been filmed for a million lifetimes. It is THAT beautiful and THAT breathtaking.
And speaking of “spiritual senses,” Tess is a Christian in this film. She turns to God when her baby born out of wedlock is sick and dying. Tess’ baby does die, and she calls on a priest to please give her baby a Christian burial. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the priest declines this because Tess’ baby was born out of wedlock. I say fortunately because what does Tess do? She, herself and alone (with God, of course), gives her baby a Christian burial. I call that fortunately because this kind of judgment from this priest should NOT be a judgment from ANY Christian, including and maybe especially a priest. There is one thing after another that Tess as a Christian does that further and further brings her to her own death. But what she does one thing after another, further and further, is all in the name of Love. And that, right there, is what should define ANY Christian! Because “Let all that you do be done in Love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). Tess was WAY MORE of a Christian than this priest was, that I can say without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. This priest was about judge, NOT Love. Tess was about love, NOT judge. This priest called to the priesthood did not Love Tess nor her baby. Tess loved her baby and the man she loved until the very end of her demise. I just wish Tess, one thing after another, further and further, had loved herself. That is one thing after another, further and further, that Tess had and I continue to have (work in progress) in common without a moment’s hesitation or doubt.
TESS is just under 3 hours long, but I kid you not that every single image (or word) of this film (or novel) is cinematic magic! It is never dull nor disappointing, never slow nor strict. It is simply “made-magic,” and it has simply “made-magic” in my life as #9 of my all-time favorite films (or novels)!😉