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by Harlan Kennedy 


Roman Polanski opened the door. Morning sunlight poured through the window-walls of his Paris apartment. The aroma of freshly ground coffee scented the air. He asked me to join him at breakfast, and seated at a bleached oak table, he broke a crisp croissant, and we began to talk of his new film Tess. The film, starring Nastassia Kinski and Peter Firth, is expected to open in the United States this month.

What drew a director noted for his surreal, macabre, and absurdist touch – in movies like Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and Chinatown – to Thomas Hardy's nineteenth-century tragic novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

"I have been influenced a great deal by surrealism and the theater of the absurd," Polanski said. "But now that the world itself has become absurd and almost sur­real, I want to go back to the simplicity and essence of human relationships."

Polanski picked up a paperback copy of the novel. "Tess is above all a great love story," he said. "What happens to Tess in the story is very much the raw-bones of Victorian melodrama: She is seduced when young, bears a child who dies, is deserted by the man she later marries, and finally is sent to the gallows for the murder of her seducer. But the flesh Hardy puts on those bones is aston­ishing. He links the girl to the rhythm of nature, within a Victorian society at odds with everything spontaneous and natu­ral. "

Polanski got up and walked to the win­dow. He looked down reflectively into the busy turmoil of the street below and then turned and said, "Tess is regeneration and continuance. But the social times she lives in are out of joint. By contrasting her with her mother, Hardy points this up marvel­ously. Listen!"

He walked back to the table, opened his well-thumbed copy of Tess, and found the passage:

Between the mother, with her fast-van­ishing lumber of superstitions, folklore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained Na­tional teachings and Standard knowl­edge . . . there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.

"The contrast is all there," said Polanski triumphantly. "The mother belongs to the past. Tess belongs to the present, to the modern age, to you and me. She is the first truly modern heroine."

"As for what you asked about my films," he said, putting the book on the table, "yes, Tess is a new departure. It is, as I have said, the film of my mature years. I shall be sorry if people have such a limited idea of what my style as a director is like – and my preoccupations – that they cannot accept something different from me. In the cinema, directors can be typecast as well as actors. The point will undoubtedly be raised in Cannes. "

Staring down from the facade of the Carlton Hotel over the busy seafront at Cannes was a gigantic poster. It showed, in the middle of a vast and bare expanse of cloudy blue, a girl's face with brown eyes, white bon­net, and strands of hair blown across her cheeks. The single word "Tess" was written in black letters beneath it, and under the name a red heart spilled three drops of blood.

Preceded by his poster, Roman Polanski was at the Cannes Film Festival to talk about Tess. A press conference at the Carlton Hotel brought a wall-bursting multitude of international journalists, most of them more interested in quizzing the French-born director about the private life of Roman Polanski than about the life and death of Hardy's tragic heroine.

Polanski, at forty-six a short, boyish, tousle-haired figure in white blazer and blue open-neck shirt, managed to rule the press conference with a winning mixture of candor and diplomacy. Yes, he would answer questions about his legal status in America, but, no, he did not intend to spend the whole conference doing so. The unmistakable Polanski voice, Slav ac­cented, slightly husky, with a straining-at-the-leash quality, kept its cool through a barrage of "When will you return to the States?" and "What sentence do you expect to receive?" and then switched to genuine interest when the questions turned to Tess.

Some questioners were determined to pan for scandalous autobiographical nug­gets in Polanski's decision to film a novel about a young girl's loss of innocence. "Ugliness," he said scornfully, "is in the eye of the beholder." Instead, he averred his love for Hardy's novel, both as a love story and as a harrowing tale of social and religious intolerance.

Two days later we met again in Polanski's top-floor suite at the Carlton. He had been up late the night before, but one could hardly tell. Polanski's pulse must start racing as soon as his eyes open, for he was soon bustling about the room gathering drinks for us, answering a phone call (from Dino De Laurentiis, asking if Kinski was available for Flash Gordonshe wasn't), hurling a casual expletive at a group of chanting demonstrators on the seafront below.

When the chanting started up again, Polanski jumped up and went to the bal­cony. "Film festivals!" he exclaimed. "Everyone is here to make a noise, and no one is here to talk about films."

Tess, a French-English copro­duction, will mark the first time that Hardy's novel has talked on the screen. It was filmed once – a silent version in 1924 starring Blanche Sweet and Conrad Nagel – and after that David O. Selznick held the movie rights for many years (with Jennifer Jones in mind for Tess). Selznick's two greatest dreams had been to film Gone With the Wind and Tess of the D'Urber­villes. He never fulfilled his second dream; at his death the rights to the novel remained in his estate.

Polanski discovered the book some years ago through his wife, Sharon Tate, who had been suggested for the role of Tess. It was his introduction to Hardy. To film Tess, Polanski teamed up with pro­ducers Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill. Burrill had worked with Polanski before, on Macbeth. Berri is chief of Renn Pro­ductions in Paris and a partner in France's largest independent distribution chain.

"The copyright for Hardy's novel ran out at the end of 1978," Berri explained recently. "But we started filming in the summer of that year. Polanski was ready, and we bought the filming rights for the remaining six month of the year because we were all high on the idea of Tess and enthusiasm was at its peak."

The speed with which the movie got under way was also determined by Polanski's ready availability in France. This followed a frustratingly abortive work session on the Hollywood epic Hurricane, interrupted by his legal problems. Once the decision to film in France was made early in 1978, Normandy became Hardy's Dorset, and villages around Cherbourg were magically transformed into rustic English hamlets.

Who was to play Tess? The production took an intriguing turn when the role of Hardy's doomed and beautiful heroine went to a young German actress: Nastas­sia Kinski, daughter of stage and screen actor Klaus Kinski, the star of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Nosferatu. In looks a darker, sultry-sweet Ingrid Bergman, she had worked with Polanski two years before, when the film-maker did a photo session for the French Vogue.

"When I met Nastassia," Polanski re­calls, "she was fifteen, but she was a woman. Woman and child at the same time. She still has this quality, and that is perfect, of course, for Tess."

Off went Nastassia Kinski to England to learn Dorset dialect and farming tech­niques. Into hibernation went Polanski, closeting himself with screenwriter Gerard Brach (who has collaborated on seven of Polanski's movies) to try and turn Hardy's long chronicle of rural passion into a two-hour film script. And whisked over from England was John Brownjohn, contributing English regional expertise to the script.

Polanski remembers with glee, "I wanted someone who knew Dorset and knew the Dorset vernacular. Brownjohn, who lives in Dorset, joined us, and by an amazing coincidence we discovered that he lives in Marnhull, the actual vil­lage on which Hardy modeled Tess's birthplace, Marlott. He also lived right next door to the Pure Drop Inn, which features both in Hardy's novel and in our film."

If the preproduction work on Tess was blessed with enthusiasm and happy coin­cidences, the shooting itself – which started in July 1978 – began more and more to resemble a production of that proverbially disaster-prone drama, Mac­beth. (Perhaps Polanski was paying for the ease with which he put Shakespeare's play on the screen eight years ago.)

A conspiracy of bad weather, strikes at Joinville studios, and Polanski's own per­fectionism stretched the already elastic shooting schedule to an alarming eight months. And there were also personal tragedies during the shooting: First, Nastassia's friend and dialogue coach Kate Fleming, of Britain's National Theatre, died, a victim of cancer. Later, world-famous cinematographer Geoffrey Uns­worth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret, and Superman) died of a heart attack. He was replaced by Frenchman Ghislain Cloquet.

Working to overcome these losses, Po­lanski managed to spearhead the crew and press on to shoot in forty different loca­tions, returning to principal ones in dif­ferent seasons of the year.

Tess, at $11 million, is one of the most expensive films ever produced in France; now it also boasts probably the longest and most grueling shooting schedule.

In Cannes I had asked Polanski what stage he had reached in the editing. His reply: "A stage of total paranoia. I'm cutting the film in an apartment, so I have twenty-four-hour access to my editing rooms. I've evicted a friend of mine, Philippe Sarde; he's composing the music for Tess. He's got this crazy apartment where everything works on push buttons. It's great, except occasionally the screen in the projection room collapses. But that adds a bit of excitement while you're watching a film. There's even a button marked Danger. If you want danger, you push it."

When I got back to Paris, I found Philippe Sarde's flat tucked away behind a shopping arcade near the Arc de Triomphe, on the third floor of an apart­ment building. One look at the rooms and you would think that a mad inventor had run amok; that an uncontrollable spate of hi-fi systems, projectors, synthesizers, and editing machines had bubbled out of his brain and he was running out of corners in which to stow them.

Polanski's British editor, Alastair McIntyre, genial, voluble, and gray haired, has worked with the director on all his films but two. He was busy at a Steenbeck pruning the trailer for Tess: a lyrical series of dissolving shots from the film set to Sarde's haunting music (more haunted than haunting on this occasion since the Steenbeck was acting up and dissonantly "wowing" the music). "It'll sound better in the projection room," McIntyre said with a smile.

Polanski burst into the melee. He wanted to see and approve the trailer. He summoned everyone to the screening room and sat at the back on a sofa in a consulting huddle with McIntyre. The trailer unreeled once, twice, three times, each time eliciting new murmurs and comments from Polanski, who was sprawled in ever deeper and more hori­zontal concentration.

Then Polanski ordered the projectionist to run the next spool of film: uncut footage of a scene between Tess and her seducer, Alec D'Urberville, with several takes of each shot. The scene is a Victorian break­fast room, bright and opulent. Alec D'Urberville, played with dark, musta­chioed suavity by British actor Leigh Lawson, is sitting at the breakfast table carving ham and lobbing taunts at Tess, whose head lies on the table in a fit of weeping.

"Another bad dream?" he sneers quietly between saws with the knife. "These morning vapors of yours are be­coming a bore."

Tess, in a feather-trimmed morning gown and period coiffure, raises a face damp with tears. Then she moves impul­sively to the door, turns round slowly as if a thought has struck her, and walks back toward the table, her eyes flickering mo­mentarily on Alec's carving knife.

The coming murder of Alec is pre­saged, deftly but delicately. But just what degree of delicacy was the topic of debate between Polanski and McIntyre. Should the knife be visible in the foreground in the first over-the-shoulder shot from Alec's viewpoint? Should close-ups of Tess be intercut, and which ones? Should the filmgoer's main attention during the scene be on her or on him?

With several different takes from sev­eral angles to choose from, it was a tanta­lizing jigsaw of a sequence. One of the strongest shots was taken from behind Tess and focused on Alec's wordless un­ease as she advances toward the table. Yet in other shots, though she speaks no words, Tess's tear-stained face has a simple, harrowing eloquence hard to take one's eyes from.

Polanski and McIntyre sketched out the plan for a rough cut of the sequence, and then Polanski jumped up from the sofa and suggested that we go for lunch.

At a German restaurant near the Etoile, while we made our way through orders of choucroute, I asked Polanski why, in the late seventies, he had been drawn to a Victorian novel, one of whose main themes was sexual and religious intolerance. Hadn't time and social change van­quished the very problems Hardy was talking about?

"No," Polanski said. "Not at all. These problems are universal and time­less. It's the same thing now and probably will be for quite a while. Absolutely every society has rules and mores, very often based on irrational prejudices and super­stitions. And hypocrisy. Maybe if Tess were less noble in mind, if she lied, if she accepted certain things that she finds instinctively repulsive, she could have lived a happier life than she did. But then she wouldn't be Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and we wouldn't be here talking about her."

Nonetheless, Polanski has eliminated from his movie some of the more un­wieldy Hardy episodes. Alec's belated and improbable conversion to Christianity has been dropped ("That's so typically Victorian!" says Polanski), and so has any explicit reference to Tess's hanging. Hardy ends his novel with a black flag hoisted over Tess's prison, indicating that she has been hanged. Polanski ends his film with the heroine's arrest at Stone­henge, where she has fled with her hus­band, Angel (played by Peter Firth), after murdering Alec. I asked Polanski if the omission of Tess's death didn't weaken the shock impact of the story.

"No," he protested. "Even in Hardy the hanging is almost an epilogue. I don't think it's essential. The story is clear enough and sad enough without it. You know Tess is doomed. In the film the succession of shots, simply the succession of shots, will give a feeling similar to the end of the novel."

After a pause to tackle more chou­croute, he said, "We built our own Stone­henge specially – just for those last scenes – because the real Stonehenge has changed so much since Hardy's day. The grass is all worn away by tourists, for instance. And many stones have been put upright, which before were lying flat."

The most simple and harrowing mo­ment, I suggested, in all of Hardy's novel is Tess's final line, "I am ready," spoken when her captors close in on Stonehenge. Polanski waved a fork and eagerly agreed: "We have kept the line, and Nastassia speaks it very quietly, very gently. But one feels the full weight of emotion – a life ending."

"Nastassia was wonderful here, not just as an actress but as part of the working team," he continued. "In the Stonehenge scene she wakes up in the morning lying on a stone. First you see the fog dissipat­ing, then you see Stonehenge, and there she lies. It was raining, and we were doing a long shot. I could have used a double, but Nastassia insisted it was all right. I made takes and takes and takes. I told her, `You have to tell me to stop filming.' And yet she never did. It's a degree of professionalism that's a little bit inquiétantwhat's the word? – disquieting."

Back in his apartment, Polanski disappeared and returned waving triumphantly an armful of yel­lowing typescripts. "These are the production notes David Selznick prepared for Tess of the D'Urbervilles in 1946," he said. "Danny Selznick gave them to me."

Polanski laid them out proudly on the table. "Look," he said. "Selznick's re­search lady, Muriel Elwood, has listed all the characters, and the clothes they should wear, and how they should look. Also, settings, props, general geography. Tess is here: `Sixteen years old, oldest of the D'Urberville chain, fine featured, roundly built, deep red lips, deep dark eyes that are neither black nor blue nor gray nor violet, a mass of dark hair. . . .' Fantastic! And look, here is a scene description – 'the landscape is of unspeakable dreari­ness.' "

The pages lay there, staring out from the shadowy reaches of film history, a challenge to future moviemakers tackling Tess. I asked Polanski if he, too, had accumulated production notes or story-boards.

"Notes, yes, of course," he replied. "But I don't storyboard. I like to be flexible. I know instinctively what I should and should not do with the camera. I spend a lot of time with the camera operator, more than with the lighting cameraman, really. We have to mesh. He must be more or less my size, because if he's taller, then he's got an entirely different view of the world. I'm five foot five inches. You're six foot two. That's nine inches, a hell of a difference. I see people's faces differently than you do be­cause of our respective heights. So I must look for an operator who is more or less my size."

Polanski poured himself a cup of tea and said, "On Tess we were really very ... improvisatory. We did a lot of filming in the twilight or half-light, and that meant rushing about with the crew, camera, and actors to catch the light at a certain mo­ment in a certain place."

The turning point in Hardy's book, I suggested, was one such twilight scene outdoors, when Tess loses her virginity to Alec. Hardy describes the event with puzzling ambiguity, leaving the reader in doubt about Tess's own role in it. Was she raped or was she seduced? Was it consent or coercion?

"Well, I think in a case like that it's both, actually, or neither," Polanski said. "It's half-and-half. It happens by insis­tence, and by using physical strength in certain ways. But physical strength was almost inevitable in those days; it was part of Victorian courtship. Even on her wed­ding night a woman might be expected to resist."

Polanski got to his feet to return to the cutting rooms. He stopped at his desk and drew out of a large folder the Tess poster, which he himself designed. "I think I should put something in the background," he said. "Perhaps Stonehenge."

He pulled out a print of Turner's paint­ing of Stonehenge, a ghostly ring of pillars hovering on the skyline in a twilight land­scape. "That's almost exactly how we have visualized Stonehenge in the film." He held the Turner print up against the poster. "I can't quite make up my mind."

In Philippe Sarde's apartment, Po­lanski's own vision of Stonehenge materialized on the screen. Dawn. Flanked by dripping, mist-bound pillars of stone lies the cold, gray, fallen slab on which a red-gowned Tess is stretched out, asleep. A gently spoken remonstrance from the offscreen Angel – "Don't wake her. Let her finish her sleep" – indicates the presence of the constables who have come to take her. Tess's eyes slowly open. She registers without shock the arrival of her captors. She sits up, holds steady her eyes and head, and says, in hushed, even tones, "I am ready."

Even as an isolated shot, the scene has a magic tension and stillness. Nastassia Kinski's voice not only lays to rest all dialect worries – her Dorset accent rings wholly true – but it suggests that she can also encompass the nobility of Tess and her dark, melancholy pride.

As Polanski drove me to the airport, I said I thought the danger with most period movies was that they tended to congeal into a series of beautiful pictures. We see recent history through newsreels and documentaries – live, rough-hewn, moving images – but precinematic history is only seen through inert tableaux: paint­ings, drawings, still photographs.

"There are dangers like that with a period film," Polanski said as he weaved his Mercedes through Paris traffic. "The beautiful images should be only an extra; they must be the bonus. People don't go to the cinema to see a collection of beau­tiful photographs. They go to experience something. The emotion is the thing."

A beeping sound interrupted Polanski. His Mercedes is studded with gadgets and gewgaws and a powerful stereo system. He picked up a telephone neatly hidden between the front seats: The screen, he learned, had collapsed again.

Polanski accelerated. "Emotion," he said, "is the main thing in all art. Art has to move, and if it doesn't, it doesn't leave a lasting impression. There are many ways to move people – to tears, to laughter, to fear. I think with Tess that we're dealing with such strong material that we mustn't be worried about beautiful pictures. The story itself is so interesting, the girl is so moving, and the film itself is filled with universal human emotions."

"Tess, you must remember", he con­tinued, "was a pure woman. It was Hardy's subtitle to the book. She broke Victorian moral codes, but she responded to natural law, to nature, her nature. That's what the whole book is about. The film is an accusation of the hypocrisy and injustice of that rigid society – and by extension of any rigid and repressive so­ciety."




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.