A Tess for child molesters

by Jane Marcus

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, p. 3
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

We go to baseball games to see a batter hit the ball. We expect Pavarotti to sing the right notes at the opera. A filmmaker can take liberties with a novel or a play and sometimes can succeed in winning a new audience for an old tale, as, my teenagers tell me, Zeffirelli wins adolescents to ROMEO AND JULIET because he appeals to their own instincts for feuding and loving. But Roman Polanski takes liberties with Hardy's book the way Alec D'Urberville takes liberties with Tess.

Thomas Hardy's characters may be victims of fate, but they are never willing victims. They shake their fists at the gods, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles is no exception. Polanski's film is a long, slow rape by the scriptwriter of Thomas Hardy's text, a long, slow rape by the camera of Natassia Kinski's lovely face, and a long, slow rationalization by the rapist imagination that that's how it is with helpless, hopeless victims. They never fight back.

The words "To Sharon" creep down the right hand side of the screen during the opening credits to produce the measured shock of "oohs" from a suburban audience. For everybody knows that the director's wife was brutally murdered, not, however, like a fly, killed by the gods for their sport. If the memory of a woman raped and murdered is the muse who inspired the making of this film, she has not taught the director either decent methods for mourning or decent methods for depicting the truth of experience. Tess belongs to history, like Antigone and Lady Macbeth. Her story is known by heart by thousands of people who probably couldn't tell you what Lady Macbeth's crimes were or why Antigone was a heroine.

The young middle-class audience going to see the film have probably encountered Hardy mainly in a classroom. And birth control and changing sexual mores have made Tess a less heroic figure for them. But Hardy's novel has also been loved by another audience across the years. Older women, Catholics, the poor, and those from cultures where woman's chastity is her most important possession, still identify with Tess' plight. She is the great Unwed Mother. And, when she kills Alec D'Urberville, women weep for joy. For Tess revenges all the woman wronged by men, raped, taken advantage of, impregnated, battered, harassed and despised for her lost virtue. Hundreds of women must be going to Polanski's movie or one reason, to see Tess kill Alec D'Urberville.

Hardy's novel was censored, like Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and Joyce's Ulysses for sexual frankness on a taboo subject. He was harassed and forced to revise for his magazine audience, so he conveys the murder with the apt figure of blood dripping through the ceiling of the parlor of a seaside boarding house in the shape of the ace of hearts. Polanski is a cheat. He does not have to operate under such censorship. We sit through three hours of suffering only to see a cowed Tess sleeping on a rock at a fake Stonehenge to be meekly led off to death by the police. Not only are we deprived of the sight of Tess taking justice into her own hands, we do not hear her tell Angel Clare that it is his duty to marry her sister and so save one member of the ill-fated Durbeyfield family.

In the novel Tess grows and changes. She has two great moments in which she challenges the men and social forces which have oppressed her. She usurps the power of the priesthood and baptizes her baby when the vicar refuses to bless a child born out of wedlock. It is a powerful and moving scene with a powerful heroine. But Polanski won't show us Tess the powerful; his image is of a poor, pretty creature disturbing the bumbling vicar at his bee-keeping, meekly telling him of her blasphemous baptism. Polanski must have his reasons for failing to show this legendary scene in graphic detail on the screen. And the reason is that there is an unwritten rule against showing a woman justified in usurping male power. Only a priest can baptize. And a priest has a penis.

The second deliberate omission is her justified murder of Alec D'Urberville. Not that the audience could have any idea of how diabolically evil Alec really is in Polanski's sympathetic portrait of a simple rake. How far has women's liberation really come if it is still taboo to show a wronged woman kill the man who has ruined her life? Why can't we see a woman enraged on the screen? We see male violence against women all the time. Is the male filmmaker afraid that if we see an angry woman kill her lover with a bread knife that the murder rate will go up?

It is the political implications of this act which are important. For here Tess usurps the male power of judgment. The law will not protect her from rape or redress the wrong she has been done, or punish the rapist, or give her back her child or her lost virtue. She takes the law into her own hands and punishes the offender, as she took Christianity into her own hands to get her dying baby into heaven. But Tess' hands are a woman's hands. They are not supposed to administer sacraments and they are not supposed to administer justice.

They are fine for milking cows, threshing wheat, and hoeing turnips. But even here Polanski cheats. There are no calluses on the hands of his cherubic eleven-year-old stilted fixed figure of Tess. We do not see her hardened and coarsened by work. It is cheating to sentimentalize the circumstances of women's seduction. It is somehow even more of a cheat to sentimentalize human labor. Milkmaids' hands are covered with sores. Hoeing turnips out of the frozen earth in a bleak November is not a pleasant task. Another gasp goes through the suburban audience when Tess takes a swig of gin to keep body and soul together in the turnip fields. But so brief is Polanski's picturesque tableau that it is like seeing Kathe Kollwitz' drawings of women field workers for the first time and then only for long enough for the eye to register the beauty of the brown and sepia tones of the drawings, not the suffering and brutalization of the workers.

The same is true of the filming of the threshing machine, that red monster in Hardy's novel which represents the brutal industrialization of farm work which breaks the rhythm of people's lives. And it titillates a modern urban audience in the electronic age, because its quaint rhythm and noise seems idyllic. There is none of Hardy's attack on industrialization, nor his portraits of the brutalized and degraded workers, no sense of people working and feeling the work in their bodies. In the film Tess romantically unbinds a few sheaves of wheat, which makes her very hungry and allows Polanski another shot of that pretty mouth, now wolfing down its food.

Earlier he had a long obscene sequence in which she purses her lips to whistle to Alec's mother's birds, which reminds one of the equally scene moments in Bergman's MAGIC FLUTE where the camera lingers lovingly on the candy-coated lips of the director's little girl at precisely the moments when little girls and big are being taught a moral lesson by the opera and the film about loyalty to daddy. Come to think of it, Polanski presents Joan Durbeyfield as another bad mother, the Queen of the Night, who embodies sex, death and social chaos.

If Polanksi had wanted to make a modern Tess, he had a ready-made culture where these scenes are still repeated. Hardy's Tess is a working woman, a field woman, he calls her. Polanski could have given us a Teresa of the lettuce fields of the Southwest among similar migrant workers as deeply attached to the earth as Tess is to her Dorset fields. He could have given us a tragedy instead of a slick melodrama for male eyes. But then his camera can hardly equal the sophisticated irony of Hardy's narrator's view. He will not less Tess speak or act. She is passive throughout, and lying down for much of the film.

Hardy's Tess is upright. She walks and talks and works and struggles and grows from child to woman under the loving hands of her creator who subtitles his novel "A Pure Woman," taking the part of a male sympathizer of heroic womanhood. Polanski is a voyeur of victimization who infantilizes our Tess. Hardy makes it clear that the "President of the Immortals" who has his sport with Tess is the author's enemy. Polanski is angling for a seat as Vice-President of the Immortals. His demand for sympathy for the victimized Tess turns tragedy into melodrama for voyeurs.