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.


Far From the Madding Crowd

You’d think that a movie based on one of Thomas Hardy’s cheerier novels, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates in their prime, with Peter Finch and a surprisingly sexy Terrence Stamp, and directed by John Schlesinger, would be pretty great, but you’d be wrong.

I saw it years ago, and remember being bored, but decided to give it a second chance the other night.  Halfway through the three-hour epic, I found myself nodding off, so it took me two nights to finish the thing.  I’m just glad that it’s been thirty years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd—which I loved—so I don’t feel betrayed on that score.  I’ll probably reread the novel now, to get the film out of my head.

As Roger Ebert said in his review at the time, “The spacious landscape of Dorset is photographed in stunning beauty, and we get panoramas of hillsides with heroic characters running up and down them.”  That’s about it, I’m afraid.  Excellent cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and a nice soundtrack with plenty of English folksongs.

Here’s Stamp’s character, mourning his dead lover: