This multiple-Oscar-winning film by Roman Polanski is an exquisite, richly layered adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. A strong-willed peasant girl (Nastassja Kinski, in a gorgeous breakthrough) is sent by her father to the estate of some local aristocrats to capitalize on a rumor that their families are from the same line. This fateful visit commences an epic narrative of sex, class, betrayal, and revenge, which Polanski unfolds with deliberation and finesse. With its earthy visual textures, achieved by two world-class cinematographers—Geoffrey Unsworth (Cabaret) and Ghislain Cloquet (Au hasard Balthazar)—Tess is a work of great pastoral beauty as well as vivid storytelling.
Criterion presents Roman Polanski’s Tess in a new dual-format edition. The dual-layer Blu-ray disc presents the film with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer while the first dual-layer DVD presents a standard definition version in anamorphic widescreen. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio or 2.35:1 on both versions.
Criterion packs a lot of content onto this one Blu-ray: a film running just shy of 3 hours and almost 4 hours’ worth of bonus material. I was admittedly concerned though thankfully this concern turned out to be groundless. Criterion has heavily compressed the bonus features (all of which seem to come from standard-definition sources) and given a decent amount of space for the film to breathe on the disc.
As it stands the transfer, taken from a new 4K restoration of from the original negative, looks rather good. The image doesn’t leap out at you, so to speak, mainly because of a rather dull colour scheme. But the colours are rendered naturally with excellent saturation and clean looking skin tones. Black levels are strong, shadow delineation is excellent, and details never getting lost in darker sequences.
Despite a slight soft focus in places details are crisp, and the fine ones in some of the more intricate designs of costumes or sets are clearly rendered. Edges are clean with no sign of artificial enhancement, depth is excellent, and motion is clean and natural with no unusual judders. Film grain is very fine but rendered generally well, though a few sequences involving some foggy exteriors present some visible pixilation. Despite this one slight issue the high-der presentation looks strikingly film-like as a whole.
The first DVD is devoted solely to the film and its standard-definition transfer looks about as good as one can expect. Compression is more of an issue and the details aren’t as clear in comparison to the Blu-ray, but these are of course limitations of the format. As it stands, for a standard-definition transfer, it’s still rather clean and doesn’t present in egregious problems, looking decent upscaled.
The print is very clean with only a few very minor blemishes remaining. Added together with the beautiful looking transfer, Tess comes off natural and filmic, the best presentation I’ve seen of the film on home video.
The film is delivered in 5.1 surround and presented in DTS-HD MA on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital on the DVD. The track is primarily front heavy with some noticeable movement and panning between the front speakers while the music creeps its way to the rear channels. Audio quality is clear, free of distortion and noise, with intelligible dialogue that is never drowned out.
The surrounds also nicely handle ambient effects such as the wind, trees rustling, livestock or machinery in the background, and in a few nice instances, thunder storms or rain. It’s surprisingly robust, mixed very well, with effects never overpowering anything else. It may not exactly be demo material but it’s immersive and sounds very natural.
It doesn’t look like there’s a lot on here but this release is fairly packed with content, starting with a 1979 episode of Ciné regards. Running 49-minutes and airing around the time of Tess’ release, it primarily offers a behind the scenes look at the making of the film. We get to see Polanski and his star, Nastassja Kinski working together, primarily for one of the final scenes in the film, where Tess finds Angel on the train (humourously, Kinski can’t open the train door.) It’s rather fascinating to watch the scene play out, especially since it never occurred to me—though it should have—that rear-projection was used. Segments from interviews with the director are also edited in, where he talks about his favourite films, what interested him in doing Tess (Shannon Tate had shown him the novel just before her murder,) what he tries to accomplish with his work, talks about framing his films, and even offers his thoughts on the French film industry at the time. Filmed at a bit of a distance, letting the action simply play out, it’s a rather fascinating making-of as well as a great examination of the director and his techniques.
Once Upon a Time… “Tess” appears to be a 2006 episode of a series called A Film and its Era. The series, which I’m not entirely familiar with admittedly, appears to cover multiple aspects of a film and its production and contextualizes it to the time period in which it was made and, as in the case with Tess, the time period in which it takes place. The piece does cover the period’s political spectrum, fashions, social issues, and the popularity of adapting period novels to film during the 70’s. With all of that it also presents interviews with members of the cast and crew, including Kinski and actor Leigh Lawson, as well as Polanski. It also addresses the rape charges that drove Polanski to flee the States. On top of this it does offer stories about the production, adding on to the previous feature and nicely rounding out the piece. It’s an interestingly constructed feature and looking it up online I see there’s a few episodes covering other films so it’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing Criterion digging up for other titles.
Criterion then ports most of the supplements from the original Sony DVD with a section called On the Making of Tess, which has been divided into three featurettes: From Novel to Screen (28-min), Filming “Tess” (26-min), and ”Tess”: The Experience (20-min). Gathering together newer interviews with Polanski, Kinski, Leigh, and then other members of the crew the segments build up a pretty by-the-numbers talking-heads documentary on the making of the film. It starts out covering the novel and its original publication (which was heavily censored and altered) and then quickly goes through the process of Polanski bringing the story to screen from casting (with Polanski mentioning how wonderful it is not having to work with stars) to location scouting.
From there the members discuss certain sequences, like the strawberry scene, the horse galloping sequence, and the rape, while the final featurette covers the general atmosphere on set, the fight over editing, and its eventual release, which didn’t go so well at first (Coppola apparently came in to help cut it down.) Despite some of its problems, including the difficulty in finding a distributor, the film eventually won three Oscars.
Overall the featurettes further expand on covering the making of the film, adding on to the previous features, though never rise above your general DVD/Blu-ray featurettes.
Criterion then includes yet one more lengthy supplement, a 50-minute segment from a 1979 episode of The South Bank Show, which features an extended interview with Polanski. There’s a little bit of discussion about his “having to leave” the States and a little on Tess, but it’s actually an excellent discussion about his films and career as a whole up to that point, covering Knife in the Water, Cul de Sac, MacBeth (which he did because he was obsessed with Olivier’s Hamlet,) and Chinatown. The two then get into a short but interesting conversation about adapting classic novels and which ones probably should never be adapted (like Faulkner.) Probably the best interview with the director in the set making for another solid addition.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer (made up solely of stills) and the included booklet (surprisingly thin I might add) features an essay by Colin MacCabe on the faithfulness of Polanski’s adaptation.
For the DVD the first disc presents the trailer while the second dual-layer disc presents the remaining features.
As a whole the features are all rather engaging, offering an insightful examination of the film’s production, the time period of the novel and when the film was made, and Polanski’s career up to that point.
With an engaging set of supplements and beautiful looking transfer, Criterion’s edition of Roman Polanski’s Tess comes with a very high recommendation.