I first read Tess of the d’Ubervilles during a long and lonely train ride through the French countryside. I was fifteen, returning from a summer language immersion, and Hardy’s tragedy struck a chord.
Maybe it was the feeling that Tess was stuck in a world whose rules were made by others. Honesty, innocence, goodness: these counted for nothing. Not even love could save her. She was doomed from birth and she knew it. By the time I reached Paris, Hardy had me convinced, too.
Polanski’s film captures the spirit of the novel. The mood struck me as exactly right, and the fact that “Tess” was filmed in the French countryside didn’t hurt, even if the spell is broken whenever Nastassja Kinski opens her mouth.
Fortunately, she doesn’t say much. Watching her face, with its somber beauty, I was reminded of a line from the French Romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine:
I plunged myself into the abyss of sadness. An illness, without a doubt, but an illness whose actual texture is seductive rather than painful, wherein death comes to seem like a voluptuous surrender into infinity.
Hardy himself considered Tess of the d’Ubervilles “an impression, not an argument.” Watch the film with this in mind and you may also find yourself surrendering to the voluptuous melancholy of Polanski’s vision.