|Natassja Kinski played Tess d'Ubervilles in the 1979 film directed by Roman Polanski. Tess won three Oscars in 1980.|
d. Roman Polanski
Criterion Collection #697
This my second go at the re-telling of Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel, Tess of the D'Ubervilles. I also took a look at the BBC miniseries from 2008, with Gemma Atherton playing Tess. I gave Thomas Hardy a label on this blog because he represents a kind of dark perfection of the late Victorian novel, and the Victorian period really was the high point of pre-modernist fiction. As a heroine, Tess is at the far side of the abyss which have the heroines of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters on the other side. Tess, a murderess, is an unabashedly tragic heroine in a way that both anticipates the future of tragic heroines, embodies his present in the Edwardian Period, and flawlessly harkens back to the prior period of late Victorian fiction represented by Anthony Trollope.
Polanski's Tess is the definitive filmed version, with three 1980 Oscars to its name and a total of six nominations. This three hour long movie also grossed 20 million at the box office, which would be close to sixty million dollars today. The Criterion Collection obviously does not have a problem with Polanski's flight from the United States to avoid facing charges of statutory rape/real rape of a child, but, hey it was the 1970s. At any rate, disliking an artist because they are a monster is the equivalent of saying you don't like any artist, because many of them have issues with people and engage in bad behavior of all sorts. It's not necessary to create great art, but it seems to be a favorite aspect of artistic life. The art they create is separate from their behavior, and exists independently of whatever they do as people.
The box office success and Oscar wins reflect that Polanski really nailed the Victorian novel adaptation Hollywood film genre in 1979. His production is anchored in the landscape of the English countryside, a languid pace allowing him to exploit said countryside for maximum visual impact, and casting Natassja Kinski (who was 19 during filming) as Tess, and these elements were enough to win the movie multiple Oscars.
I think a central fact to understand about the appeal of Hardy's original novel is that it was published in 1891, but covered time in the 1870s. In other words, Hardy was writing about a time period over twenty years ago. This is the same kind of nostalgia embodied by the film, American Graffiti or Grease, a romantic past, but of course with Hardy it turns out terribly badly. The ability of an Artist to succesfully reach back in time and capture the attention of an Audience at the time of the initial reception increases the likelyhood that future Audiences will react similarly. This is in comparison to works that reach the attention of an Audience because of their novelty or timeliness. Those works which initially gain attention because of their novel characteristics are less likely to be appreciated by subsequent audiences.