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Tess at the End of the World

Film still from 'Tess', directed by Roman Polanski in 1979
  • By Christine Smallwood
  • Issue 2
  • On Beauty

“You can hold your own for beauty against any woman, queen or commoner. I tell you that as a practical man, who wishes you well. If you’re wise you’ll let the world get a clearer sight of that beauty before it fades.”
Tess (dir. Roman Polanski, 1979)

From the start Nastassja Kinski is all wrong. She is too tall, too skinny, her nose too sharp, her skin too dewy, her lips freakishly engorged. She is dressed like the other ribboned maidens, in white frock and crowned with flowers, but she is nothing like them. The others seem to have been born in this merry field, between poor green hedges, in this fading light, but she has come from some other place, some other time. Her father is red from drinking and her mother is worn from care. Their teeth are horrible. They could never be her parents.

Kinski does not look natural to the landscape but she is the only thing that can complete it, the only life that can compare. Golden light, morning mists, green leaves on the way to turning brown—all this world is passing in season. Yellow fields turn ready; strawberries ripen for eating; girls shine, and then tarnish, and are then thrown away. Time makes Tess into a murdereress, and she lies in red velvet on the rocks of Stonehenge for one last night’s sleep, amid surprising patches of moss. Even here something is growing.

Tess was the first film Polanski made after he was charged with sexual assault against a minor, and it was shot in France, because Britain might have extradited him. Polanski understood something about Tess that only D. H. Lawrence had seen before—that she looks better with Alec, the man who ruins her, than with Angel, the hypocrite. Angel is cherubic and soft. Alec is dark. His face matches hers.

Kinski’s eyes are huge, blinking from under washed-out bonnet, milkmaid’s cap, and straw hat. There is something moronic in her perfection. Her naïveté is that spot of grotesqueness that every moment of beauty requires, that bit of rotting meat or eyeless skull in the corner of the nature morte. She looks like heaven but is only a pheasant or a gray fluttering bird. Angel mistakes this animal innocence for transcendence, which is why he is the worse villain.

Eight years after shooting Tess, Kinski lay on the ground with a python between her legs for the photographer Richard Avedon. The snake looks at her head and she looks into the camera. It is a deeply silly picture. What does Nastassja Kinski have to do with Adam and Eve? In Tess there are no apples and no sin. There are only chickens, cows, strawberries, and swans, and then, when all is lost, a demonic thresher that tears through the countryside, churning pastoral bliss into machine terror.