Left: Roman Polanski, Tess, 1979, 35 mm, color, 171 minutes. Tess (Nastassja Kinski). Right: A poster for Roman Polanski's Tess (1979).

ROMAN POLANSKI’S LUSH, sympathetic 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), a saga of a proud, innocent peasant girl destroyed by Victorian double standards, opens with a reminder of a woman whose life was gruesomely extinguished. “[T]o Sharon” reads the dedication in the first minutes as young women, including the titular heroine, dressed in white gowns for a May Day procession, skip down a path. The dedicatee—actress Sharon Tate, Polanski’s second wife, killed by the Manson Family in 1969—had introduced the director to the novel shortly before her death.

The specter of Tate’s grisly murder isn’t the only abject aspect of the director’s personal life that informs one’s viewing of Tess. In 1978, a year after pleading guilty to having “unlawful sexual intercourse” with thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey, Polanski fled Los Angeles, convinced (with good reason, as Marina Zenovich’s assiduously reported 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, makes clear) that the corrupt, media-besotted judge in his case was about to sentence him to fifty years in prison. As a “fugitive from US justice,” Polanski couldn’t film Tess in Dorset—the county in southwest England renamed “Wessex” in Hardy’s books—for risk of being extradited from the UK. Instead, Brittany and Normandy, in northern France, the country where Polanski has mainly lived since fleeing the US, doubled as the English region.

The poster for the US release of Tess, the first film Polanski made after his legal troubles in this country, offered this précis: “She was born into a world where they called it seduction, not rape. What she did would shatter that world forever.” Although this blustery promo copy does describe, sort of, the event that brings about Tess’s downfall—she is raped and impregnated by an older parvenu whom she believed to be one of her noble-blooded relatives—it also seems a curious tagline for a film whose director had been arrested for the sexual assault of an adolescent. (Or maybe not: Underneath the title, the poster copy concludes, “As timely today as the day it was written.”) Polanski’s choice for the title role also courted scandal: Nastassja Kinski, whom the director met in 1976, when she was fifteen; they began a romantic relationship that year, which ended around the time Tess wrapped. (A writer in People magazine said in a 1981 profile of the actress, “A few years ago the German-born Nastassia Kinski seemed just another teen trinket in Roman Polanski’s notorious collection of Lolitas.”)

I mention all of these extrafilmic details, even at the risk of conflating offscreen events with on-, fiction with fact, 1891 with 1979, not to diminish Polanski’s Tess but to exalt it further. Made at a time when half the world, it seemed, considered its director a pariah—as many have continued to vilify as champion Polanski in the thirty-five years since the Gailey incident—Tess stands as one of the filmmaker’s gentlest, most sumptuous works. The madness and claustrophobia that had dominated Polanski’s acclaimed “apartment trilogy”—concluded in 1976 with The Tenant, in which the director himself plays the unraveling Parisian leaseholder of the title—are here supplanted by landscapes reminiscent of those by John Everett Millais and a protagonist who fiercely refuses to become a victim. Polanski the man will forever remain a divisive figure; Polanski the filmmaker can sometimes bridge that chasm.

Melissa Anderson

A new DCP restoration of Tess runs November 30 through December 6 at Film Forum in New York.