Science and storytelling

"Tess", screenplay by Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn,
based on the book by Thomas Hardy, directed by Polanski

Kevin Warwick from Reading University, UK, experiments with electronic enchantment of human senses. He hooks himself into a nervous system of his wife - which results in him knowing what she feels, or connects his system to a third, artificial arm which he can mentally control. He ponders how allowing our nervous systems to electronically read roentgen or ultraviolet radiation could change our perception of reality. Prof. Warwick assumes that since our inferior senses cut us off from 95% of electromagnetic radiation, for all practical reasons, we are death and blind. Furthermore, that which reaches our brains is represented via a very clumsy and primitive four dimension scheme. Thus, reality remains not-penetrable.

Enters Roman Polanski with Tess. The film uses techniques that seem to advocate a Warwick like approach to reality: throughout our lives we are subjected to huge forces which we only occasionally are aware of. In Tess these external forces present themselves in dreams, yearnings, premonitions, in sensitivities of animals and peculiarities of our fates. Those of us who are more attuned to that which is not blatantly seen and heard are weirdoes, aliens, Tesses (“sometimes we can make our souls leave our bodies”.) Society does not take liking to such creatures: Tess has to be sacrificed on the altar of Stonehenge to the god of Sun.

Polański said somewhere that for him each scene has to address more that just one element of plot, one plot point. This multidimensionality of events steams evenly during the unfolding of the story. Most beats seem to posses larger meaning than that of their immediate function in the story. We sense this via many narrative techniques: upcoming occurrences sneak themselves into events currently presented, scenes, backgrounds, actions return revealing their usually darker, tragic layers. The repetition of situations brings disaster. The second carriage - husband chasing scene throws Tess into the miserable relation with the fake d’Uberville, the second wedding night with Angel brings their capture and her death. Many key points in advancing the story - the decision to visit d’Ubervilles, a child delivery, christening of this child, his death, are not shown directly. The web of destiny is too permeating and ever present to naively zero in on its obvious singular manifestations.

Visually, characters are introduced with much delay (Tess, Angel) as if also emerging from a web of emotionality that hoovers over that which is. Emotions emanate outward into surroundings, or surroundings mess with the sensitivities of characters - the rows of maturing cheese hanging in the cellar are nothing less than the souls of young woman sleeping in the room above, the furious working of the threshing machine is the troubled and pained psyche of Tess. The forces that trash us are either social (Angel reads “das Kapital” and acts as its blind and idealistic follower) or metaphysical.

Tess gives a noble fight. Twice during her ordeal the storytellers (Polanski and the composer Phillipe Sarde) point their fingers at her struggle suggesting (inner) triumph. The same glorying music comes during her burring the child and her “burying” herself in the forrest. The second “advancement” is additionally attested by the appearance of a deer. A quite metaphysical, (
approving?) deer, as if a messenger of the gods.

Polanski subscribes to “American Science”, has a predilection for clear, rational thinking, sneers at attempts to interpret his work through some cheap spiritual lenses, is furious when journalists suggest connections between his life and subject matters of his films (particularly Rosemary’s Baby). We may therefore safely assume that his storytelling perspective displayed in Tess is not a nod to some superficial “new age” leftovers but rather is a result of analysis of the forces that shape our world, the analysis coming close to possible future extended sensory perception suggested by prof. Warwick.

The difference is in timing: Warwick works to make additional sensory perception accessible to all by technological means, Polanski suggests the possibility of knowing right now more than is given by our five senses. It can be done through a properly constructed screen tale.

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