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Film / Tess

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Tess is a 1979 film directed and co-written by Roman Polański.

It is the most famous of the many screen adaptations of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The setting is Wessex in the late 1880s. John Durbeyfield is a dirt-poor "haggler" who discovers that he is actually a direct male descendant of the d'Urbervilles, a noble family with a lineage that dates back to the Norman Conquest.

John, being both dirt-poor, lazy, and a drunkard, decides to capitalize on this. He sends his beautiful daughter Tess (Nastassja Kinski, in her Star-Making Role) to a richer branch of the d'Urberville family which lives in a grand mansion. It turns out that the rich d'Urbervilles aren't actually d'Urbervilles; their name is Stoke, and they bought the d'Urberville name and noble crest. The scion of the d'Urberville family, Alec, is superficially charming but is actually a lecherous rake. He rapes Tess, and she eventually flees the d'Urberville mansion. She finds work on a dairy farm, and meets Angel Clare (Peter Firth), who is kind and understanding and handsome to boot. They fall in love—but naturally, tragedy ensues.


  • Anachronism Stew: At one point in the movie one of the characters says "hello Tess". This is an impossibility. The phrase "hello" was invented along with the invention of the telephone; and was part of the instruction manual Alexander Graham Bell wrote for all his new phone customers; to use the phrase when greeting people. This story took place in the 1870s, and while the phone was invented in 1876, it did not become commonplace until a decade or so later. So people from this part of rural England would not have been using it as a phrase to greet each other at this point. (They would have said "Good Day" or "Good Morning.")note 
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Not Tess but Izz, another of the milk maids. After Angel asks if she is well she confesses that she could never be well without him. She then tells him that no one, including her, could love him more than Tess did.
  • Arcadia: Rural 19th century Englandnote , with rolling, verdant green meadows, teeming fields of wheat, and peasants harvesting said wheat. There's also a hint of End of an Age when, towards the end of the film, a steam-powered hay baler is shown, chugging and making noise and disturbing the peace of Arcadia.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Angel is sort of an early version of this. He comes from money, apparently Old Money, but he rails against the aristocracy and has notions of being a farmer. The second his notions are really challenged, when Tess makes her confession, he can't deal with it and dumps her. The movie further underlines this by showing that Angel keeps a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital on his desk.
  • The Bride with a Past: Angel the hypocritical douchebag can't deal with hearing about Tess's past with Alec d'Urberville.
  • Circle of Standing Stones: The most famous one in the world, as Tess and Angel are caught and the former is arrested at Stonehenge.
  • Death of a Child: Tess's baby by Alec d'Urberville is sickly and dies. It's made all the more heartrending when she has to bury the baby herself, as her asshole father won't let the vicar in to baptize the baby, and the asshole vicar won't give a Christian burial to an unbaptized child.
  • Dedication: Not long before she was murdered Sharon Tate gave her husband a collector's edition of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and told him that he should make The Film of the Book with her playing the lead role. After all of the other opening credits roll up the screen, the dedication "to Sharon" appears and rolls up.
  • Defiled Forever: Tess believes this of herself, saying "I cannot be your wife" after Angel asks her to marry him. She gets past this, but apparently Angel the douchebag believes this too, since he immediately dumps her after she confesses her past with Alec.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After he raped her, and after years of enduring his abuse, Tess snaps and murders Alec.
  • Downer Ending: Tess is arrested for Alec's murder, and a closing title card says that she was hanged.
  • Erotic Eating: Alec feeds Tess a strawberry. It's played with, as it's also nonconsensual (she says "I would rather take it from my own hand"), and that is Foreshadowing of how Alec later rapes her.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Alec's carefully groomed mustache gives him a vaguely villainous air even before he makes his villainy plain.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: There's a brief shot of Angel looking mournfully through the window at the pouring rain outside, after he and Tess have separated.
  • Headbutt of Love: Angel and Tess do this when he asks her to marry him and she demurs, saying "I cannot be your wife," because she thinks she's been Defiled Forever.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Vaguely hinted at in the book as Tess's fate when Angel finds her again. Somewhat more explicit in this film, in which Angel finds Tess in a fancy seaside "boarding house" in Sandbourne, with Tess wearing a fancy dressing gown and her hair elaborately styled. She tells Angel that Alec has been good to "all of us", implying that Alec owns the place.
  • Hypocrite: So many.
    • John Durbeyfield, for essentially pimping his daughter out to a noble branch of the family, only to cite his morals and pride when he refuses to let Tess's baby be baptized.
    • The vicar, who bleats platitudes about how the whole community feels Tess's pain, but won't give her baby a Christian burial.
    • Angel, who gets up on a moral high horse and dumps Tess for her past, right after he confessed the exact same thing to her.
    • The only non-hypocritical characters are Tess and, strangely, Alec d'Urberville, who admits that he is evil.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Alec's feelings toward Tess, especially after the rape. Before, it's clear that he just sees her as another conquest. However, after he's "mastered" her, Tess constantly shows no interest in anything further to do with him, and handily resists his efforts to keep her under his thumb by repeatedly choosing poverty and independence over accepting his strings-attached financial aid. At least until the very end.
    Alec: Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man's wife, you are mine!
  • Info Dump: The entire history of the d'Urbervilles/Durbeyfields is related by a parson who calls John Durbeyfield "Sir John", and, after John asks why, explains everything.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The opening credits play over a five-minute-long uninterrupted take that shows a festive wedding party walking down a country road, where it meets John Durbeyfield tramping in a different direction.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Angel can't deal with it when he finds out that Tess is not a virgin.
  • Nouveau Riche: The Stokes, who made money and then literally bought their way into the aristocracy by purchasing the d'Urberville name and crest.
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Alec takes Tess on just such a date. It's a pretty twisted example as this comes after he raped her and forced her into being his mistress.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Tess and Angel being led away from Stonehenge by the police.
  • Rain of Blood: As in the novel, the landlady/Miss Kitty is alerted to Alec's death by the blood leaking through the ceiling.
  • Rape as Drama: Alec lures Tess into the woods. At first she kisses him consensually, but then, after she pushes him away, he rapes her.
  • Re-Cut: The film was originally released at 184 minutes. It was then distributed widely in a 134-minute cut. A 172-minute cut has since become the standard version for home video and streaming.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: Tess, who has been clad in white or shades of gray throughout the movie, wears a scarlet red dress as she is leaving the boarding house (brothel?) after murdering Alec.
  • Table Space: The rupture in the formerly blissful romance between Angel and Tess, after she confesses her past, is demonstrated by them eating breakfast the next morning on opposite ends of a table.
  • Voiceover Letter: Several letters from Tess to Angel, starting with the letter where she confesses her past, which she retrieves after he doesn't read it. Then several more voiceover letters after he leaves her, starting with her begging him to write back and ending with her saying he's treated her cruelly and she will never forgive him.