I posted all those Thomas Hardy reviews so I could write this.
I've seen enough of Polanski's films now that I'm starting to feel justified in having an opinion of him. Trouble is, I can't formulate one. So far I'm wildly divided on him. It seems that for every Chinatown there's a Vampire Killers. For every Repulsion...a Tess.
I've read good reviews of this, but I don't see it. Or rather, I guess I see it: cinematography is this film's almost-saving grace. But it's a lousy drama.
The images. I truly love some of them. Okay, try to forget that this most England-focused of Hardy's novels is being filmed in France (and even if you're not aware of this, you guess it within about three frames). The countryside is shot with a luminous, luxurious style that makes you feel you're stepping into a Millet painting. Some (not all) of the interiors partake of this glow. There's a scene where the milkmaids are looking out at Angel Clare through a window in the early morning that's just golden.
But. As drama, this film doesn't do it for me. We never really get inside the characters; we're watching them, admiring their costumes and the framing, and their personal beauty. It's a surprisingly faithful, almost literal, adaptation, and yet almost all information about characters' motives is left out. Nastassja Kinski is a lot of the problem: beautiful, but so plainly not English, and so sexy, that you never for a moment buy her as Tess. Tess ends up looking life a waif in an erotic haze, rather than a flesh-and-blood girl in a well-thought-out social drama.
Sometimes an artist will live up to his stereotype, and it's annoying. Tess feels like it was made by a coked-up, oversexed European director who's confident no one reads Thomas Hardy anymore.