Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Once Victim, Always Victim. That's the Law.

Sometimes I will rewatch movies just because I'm in the mood for a certain costumed era. If I'm itiching for 1970's slit skirts and fur, I'll watch The Eyes of Laura Mars. If I want to see 1930's craziness, I'll turn on The Women. And this past Friday I had a burning desire to watch a movie featuring women wearing bonnets, lace-up boots, prairie skirts, and corsets.

You would think I might have turned to something set on the American prairie, but instead I rewatched 1980's Tess, which takes place near the end of the 19th century in Wessex, England. It's a movie I've turned to for this same reason many times in the past.

Bonnet life forever.

I've loved Tess since I first saw it in 1982, (which you can read a bit about here), but it's odd that I haven't really viewed it in relation to director Roman Polanski's crime of rape until now.

He made it two years after his conviction for "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor," near the beginning of his exile from the U.S. In fact, the film, which is set in England, had to be shot in France since he would have been extradited had he stepped foot in the U.K.

I have a hard time separating a person's life from their work, as I imagine many do. I can't look at a movie like Woody Allen's Manhattan now and not be a little sickened by its central romance between an older man and a teenage girl. Do I still think it has one of the best movie endings of all time? Yes. But I just can't take the same pleasure in rewatching it now that I once did.

Tess is an odder situation. Rape is at the center of its story, but the presentation of the rape itself doesn't leave much room for an alternative interpretation. When it happens, Tess is clearly fighting against it, and Alec is clearly overpowering and taking advantage of her. More importantly, the rest of story centers on how she is unfairly blamed for her own rape both by the mores of the time, and the man she eventually falls in love with. The story clearly criticizes the societal hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that, maddeningly, still exists today.

An odd choice for lobby card image...

Was Polanski, in a way, acknowledging his own complicity in that hypocrisy by making the movie? I mean, I can't imagine he was so obtuse that he didn't see some parallels to his own life. Or did he make it thinking it might be some form of defense, as if to say, "See? This is what 'real' rape looks like. I'm not guilty of that!"

I have the Criterion version, which includes a lot of extras, and I thought I might get some insight there, since many of the extras include interviews with Polanski. One is called Once Upon a Time...Tess, and is a short documentary made in 2006 about the making of the film. It includes an interview with Polanski that's surrounded by details about his life and work. In it, the narrator refers to Polanski's 1977 rape of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey as "a consenting sexual relationship with a 14-year-old model."

Oh hell no. Under California law, a 14 year old (and she wasn't, she was 13) can't give consent to any sexual relationship, let alone one that involves being drugged first. Nice try though, narrator.

After that, the documentary returns to the interview, where Polanski is asked to expand on a previous  statement he made about how the making of Tess had been a "cathartic" period after his short stint in jail, and how the movie, like many of his films, might reflect some specific aspects of his life. Polanski skirts the question by immediately talking about his becoming a boy scout after World War II, and how that experience has influenced all of his work.

So much for that desired insight.

I'd like to think that Polanski was in some way acknowledging his crime by making Tess, mainly because I don't want his crime to hamper my enjoyment of the movie. It's selfish, I know. And I find myself making strained rationalizations whenever I rewatch my favorite Polanski movies as well. For example, Tess is the only movie he made after the rape that I actually like enough to rewatch, so I'm not really supporting his post-rape career. And I justify rewatching Chintatown and Rosemary's Baby because those were all made before his crime.

But it's not like he actually was some kind of boy scout before 1977. He was a notorious Lothario, and that rape in 1977 was not the first nor last time he had a sexual relationship with a minor. (He would go on to have another one with Tess's Nastassja Kinski, whom he met when she was 16.)

Sometimes you can't really control your reaction to a movie. You'll love something, or hate something for very personal reasons. Tess was the first period movie I didn't find incredibly boring, and the tragedy of the story stuck with me. When a literature class I was taking in junior high was reading Jane Austen, I persuaded the teacher to let me do a report of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles instead. I think even at that young age I recognized that life seldom deals you a happy and romantic ending. Better to embrace a beautiful tragedy and prepare for life's inevitable disappointments...

Despite it being made by someone who may very well be a monster, I can't help but deeply love the movie Tess; it's ingrained. That the movie itself seems to condemn men like the man who made it makes that love even more complicated.

I don't think anyone can or should be completely exonerated for their crimes just because they've created a moving piece of art that seems to address and condemn the very crimes they are accused of. But when that does happen, at least, at least, they've put something out there that might change the hearts and minds of people who might have very well followed in the footsteps of the criminal, and not the artist.

Tess meets her fate.

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