Tess (1979) and Separate Tables (1958)

Dir. Roman Polanski. Starring Natassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson

Dir. Delbert Mann. Starring David Niven, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth

Two scenes from Tess, one of the great movies of the 1970s, made me wonder what the movie would have been like in another director’s hands. When Angel (Firth) returns from Brazil, with a shaggier beard and a few ounces more humility, he does so with a mind to reclaim the wife he knows he’s wronged. When Tess (Kinski) comes downstairs, she is dressed in a fashionable robe, with her hair done up in a way we’ve never seen it before. Our suppositions after having seen Tess’ family in a comfortable house are confirmed: she is now Alec’s (Lawson) kept woman, pushed by the final straw of her father’s death into selling out, purposefully cracking her whalebone spine. Tess rejects Angel in cliched but certain tones, and returns up the stairs to where Alec is waiting. Yet we do not immediately follow her upstairs. We wait with Angel instead, who sits and weeps for a moment before he leaves her. It’s a choice which seems odd: Tess is the one who has suffered at Angel’s hands, and we’re watching him suffer? In one of the movie’s best scenes for its understated hurt, Angel literally walks out on Tess when he realizes that she has been raped. I do not think you are in the wrong, he tells her, but you are not who I thought you were. Tess (and the rest of us, frankly) are aghast at this bizarre logic. The moment where Tess returns upstairs screams for comeuppance not because this is a movie about justice but because there is virtually no other way to depict the story humanely. Yet Polanski whiffs.

The first scene, one of the key scenes of the picture for plot and for ideas alike, is fairly early. Alec has never made a secret of his attraction to his comely “cousin,” and he uses a series of pretexts to create the appropriately yielding mood: he picks her up and rides away with her from a fracas, he tells her he’s sent her father a horse, he is bruised a little when she pushes him from his horse when he tries to take liberties with her. He manages to get a kiss. He turns it into more. Before she can push him away, he has already made his move, and while she pushes and kicks and grunts and gasps and fights, it is for nothing. The scene is long enough, I suppose. It’s clear what’s taken place; this is not one of those movies, like Blade Runner or pick your ’40s or ’50s noir, where resistance turns into passion and we are left with our guesses and arguments as to the fullness of consent. What, one wonders, was going through Polanski’s head as he directed this scene in the first movie he’d made since leaving the United States for good? After all, he had fled the States and returned to France after word came down that he might be looking at a sentence of multiple decades in prison for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. What did Lawson and Kinski—who turned eighteen in 1979—think about while they were in front of the camera, and then when they’d returned to their trailers? It is a scene which is impossibly distracting because of the life of the man behind the camera, and we should be distracted by it. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which Polanski decided to make into a movie at Sharon Tate’s recommendation, is about more than this one chapter of Tess’ life, and yet it’s hard not to feel like this chapter moves real fast in the movie.

This is not a particularly faithful adaptation of Hardy, even though the movie hits the major beats of the novel without straying too far from the original text. If this were a BBC production, they would have done better to find someone besides Polanski to make the movie, who makes Wessex into an Eden of golds rather than a simple farming county. Tess is stunningly beautiful, a B+ Barry Lyndon in the hands of Geoffrey Unsworth (who died during production) and Ghislain Cloquet. Nor does Tess herself feel like a Hardy character; via Kinski and Polanski, Tess is more stubborn than virtuous. She is good, but not for any kind of trying. Like any other movie adaptation of a literary text, though, one does better to take the movie on its own terms. For whatever else that entails, as we’ve considered already, this is Roman Polanski’s story.

The story he’s chosen is one which makes relatively little use of close-ups. For whatever he’s elided from Hardy, he seems intent on making his setting matter as much as Hardy’s settings mattered. It’s important that Tess does not grow up in squalor; the home she shares with her parents and several siblings is small, but not gritty. She does not have many clothes, but the dresses we see her in early are clean and in good order. The kind of wealthy life that she runs into once her parents pressure her into trying to get something out of some local d’Urbervilles once her father discovers his noble ancestry is attractive enough, it seems, but it does not compel her. She eats the strawberry off of the vine that Alec proffers, but more than once she repeats that she isn’t hungry. She wears roses on her hat because he places them there, not because she feels a need for them. The first time she seems genuinely taken with some luxury is when Angel gives her some diamond jewelry, and it has much more to do with the man gifting them than it does necessarily with the trinkets. In all of these moments, there is scenery behind her, to the side of her. She is never just a face, but hers is always a face in a garden, a body at table, kept out of arm’s reach of the audience in the way she always seems to be vulnerable to men. When she pleads with Angel after he’s made his first move to abandon her, it’s done with the estate in the background and a sunset besides. When Alec rapes her, the gray forest surrounds her. And when she is found by the police, she is laying out on one of the rocks of Stonehenge, and Polanski makes sure we see the sun rise between two of the pillars once she’s been taken away.

Separate Tables is a good pairing for Tess. Tess sprawls over near three hours and many years with a gigantic cast of smaller names and character actors, in gorgeous color. Separate Tables, in attractive but simple black-and-white, has a reasonable ensemble cast filled with name-brand actors and looks at a single small seaside hotel over the course of eighteen hours squeezed into 100 minutes. Thematically, Separate Tables is also more humble than Tess, which takes a big swing at “justice” and “virtue” and “repressive Victorian values.” Tess spends her entire adult life and the tail end of her childhood being abused by men, alternately fighting Alec when he rapes her and submitting to Angel’s absurd request for a separation. The sexual wrongs committed in Separate Tables are slighter, much easier to forgive, and still deeply troubling. For one thing, they are offscreen, and what we have to deal with are a series of reactions. The first belongs to Pollock (Niven), who sees his name in a local newspaper and does his best to hide it, which is not much of an effort. It’s picked up by one of those terrifically snide know-it-all bourgeois geezers that England seems to specialize in, and Maud (Gladys Cooper) quickly moves to have Pollock kicked out of the hotel. For inappropriately propositioning and even grabbing half-a-dozen women in a dark cinema, Pollock is put on probation by the police for twelve months. This is the more important of the two plots.

The other is similarly dark, concerning a separated husband and wife, John (Lancaster) and Anne (Hayworth), who broke up after he got sick of her wily manipulation and she, presumably, ran from his abusive drunkenness and bruised masculinity. In a career full of he-men, this must be one of Lancaster’s most he-mannish, and that’s visible in his enormous reactions, his unbridled libido, his refuge in violence. In one five-minute stretch, he throttles her, lets go of her, and then fells her with a blow on the landing when she follows him out of the room. There is no punishment for John, neither from the movie nor from his fellow hotel residents. He actively cheats on his fiancee, the aging hotel manager Pat (Wendy Hiller). Not only does Pat urge John in the end to return to Anne, who “needs him,” she reacts coolly to the fact that John struck Anne down with Burt Lancaster’s fists. She’s okay, she assures John. She wasn’t hurt. (To me this is the strangest part of the movie.)

There are only two other men in the movie; one, Fowler (Felix Aylmer), is a retired and presumably unmarried schoolteacher, and the other is a medical student named Charles (Rod Taylor). Fowler is quick to accede to Maud’s demand that Pollock be discharged from the Beauregard; he is probably our most thoroughly sympathetic male character. Even though Charles seems okay, it’s worth noting that he is desperate for his girlfriend, Jean (Audrey Dalton) to marry him; in short, he intends to exert some patriarchal control over his willful beloved as soon as possible. (Amusingly, Jean seems to recognize the patriarchal impulse in Charles’ consistent prodding. When she finally accepts his offer, it’s followed up by an immediate plan to pop out at least three kids, which elicits an eye-roll from Charles.)

Just about everyone comes to accept Pollock by the end of the movie, a choice which I’m not sure would play sixty years later but which makes sense in the context of the movie. It’s worth noting that there’s not a single person at the hotel who gets involved in the snafu who argues that Pollock has been unduly punished. When they read it in the newspaper, everyone believes it without question and are certain that Pollock has done something genuinely bad. Even John, who needles Maud about her vindictiveness, never questions Pollock’s criminality. No one is willing to call Pollock a bad person, but what everyone does, in the end, is pity him. Nor does it seem to be an empathetic “We understand you” situation, but one where people reject the dictatorial rule of an unpleasant woman in order to express some gentleness in support of a broken man. What annoys Maud (and Fowler, to some extent) is the obvious and clumsy act Pollock is putting on. He goes by “Major” around the hotel, claims to have fought at El Alamein, and tells people that he was educated at a ritzy public school; it comes out in the article that he ended the war a lieutenant at a supply depot in the Caribbean and, of course, never went to Wellington or North Africa. The pity that everyone showers him with (saying good morning, asking about the weather, reporting on the cricket scores) is the meanest kindness for a man who we know already is full of self-loathing, who has disappointed his father and managed to collect not a dram of glory in World War II. Like just about everyone else in the movie, Niven is something of a fading star. (For better or worse, this is especially true of the film’s three lead actresses; Hiller, Hayworth, and Deborah Kerr all land somewhere between mid-thirties and late forties, and Kerr in particular is about as frumpy as possible.) The straight-backed roue of Dodsworth and the dashing, erudite aviator of A Matter of Life and Death are far behind him; his temples are nearly white, as is his mustache. There are so many lines in his forehead, and Niven gives a performance which begins well and in the end becomes stellar. His face is constantly in nervous motion, his eyebrows bouncing and his chin twitching as his eyes jump up before landing heavily on the floor. There is a great sadness in him, for no one knows how guilty and wretched he is more than himself.

Tess is undeniably dramatic and moving, largely because the story hones in on its one focus. Separate Tables draws a conclusion which, depending on one’s point of view, is either distracting and mawkish or insightful and raw. It seems all too convenient that this hotel should house *deep breath* a lonely gambler, the Katisha of the English seashore and her terrified adult daughter, a writer torn between his sensible spinster hotel manager fiancee and his glamorous and vain druggie ex-wife, and a lying veteran who has disappointed everyone he knows for fifty years. With a few missteps—the vast majority of the “melodrama” with the bad connotation belongs to Lancaster and Hayworth, and Kerr does not have much room to work—it manages to come through. Perhaps the people at the Beauregard are a touch more dramatic than the average set of residents, but all the same I don’t find the movie too staged or too heavy with the fingerprints of an overzealous screenwriter (or, indeed, Terence Rattigan). It falls short of verisimilitude, sure, but there’s nothing unrealistic about believing that in a group of ten people, there can be a thousand interwoven problems. Separate Tables, like Tess, serves as a reminder that hurt does not come with limits or lids. If given time to fester, there is no limit to how far that pain can reach in a person’s mind or body.

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