I don’t mind sitting three hours for an unhappy ending. Actually, I think most long films have unhappy endings, don’t they? However, I did not sit through the three poorly acted and written hours of Tess expecting to have to tolerate a scene with the sun rising at Stonehenge and some bullshit insight into the finiteness of nobility. Oh, good grief, the Stonehenge finale was in the book… (I’m cruising Wikipedia as I type).
I was going to start out this post with a discussion on the long, mediocre film. Whether or not the film truly improves over time, or if through the long viewing time, the brain’s quality receptors somehow get burned out. Whether or not the taste buds go dry. Unfortunately, Tess‘s absurd third act–when the unlikable, emotionally abusive husband the audience has just spent forty-five minutes despising, becomes the hero; the somewhat amusing and somehow honorable scoundrel becomes the villain, of course, at the same time–ruins my previous analysis. The analysis only works if the film is consistently mediocre. Tess putrefies at the end. (A reasonable comparison would be Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World, which is two hours longer than Tess–five hours–and never swings high or low, just stays steadily unremarkable).
However, Tess is not a wholly unpleasant experience. The cinematography is beautiful (though one can’t help but notice it’s lifted from Barry Lyndon, which did it better too) and the scenery, for much of the film, is glorious. Polanksi couldn’t shoot in England, so he used the French countryside. While the English countryside is beautiful in its own way, there’s an inherent dreariness to it. The French countryside is simply glorious and when the story becomes dreary, the muddy skies look fake.
Nastassja Kinski is nice enough to turn in an unspeakably bad performance, so bad it’s comical, especially since the subtitle writers of the DVD I watched couldn’t understand her awful English accent and frequently got lines quite wrong. Also terrible is Peter Firth as the husband, but Leigh Lawson is good as the scoundrel. The switch in characters’ personalities is actually not as annoying–oh, it’s still bad–as when we’re expected to remember people who were in the film for four minutes and never in a close-up. There’s period where Kinski visits a friend who I thought was the mother until five or six minutes into the second scene. The film’s writing is terrible, but if the Stonehenge finale isn’t Polanki’s fault I’m not going to go blaming him for all the other tripe in the script.
What a lousy way to spend three hours… though, as Tess was nominated for Best Picture, it’s nice to know the Academy was almost as full of shit in the late 1970s as it is today.