The Tenant, 1976.
Directed by Roman Polanski.
Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, and Shelley Winters.
A bureaucrat rents a Paris apartment where he finds himself drawn into a rabbit hole of dangerous paranoia.
One of Roman Polanski’s recurring motifs has always been the horror of the apartment space. It was as recently as his last film, Carnage, and in a crucial sequence of his masterful The Pianist: it’s from an apartment window which Szpilman can do nothing but watch atrocities unfold outside. The fascination is there most obviously, though, in Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’, which includes Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and concludes with The Tenant. And The Tenant, a blackly comedic meta-horror, is perhaps Polanski’s ultimate use of the apartment as a claustrophobic, paranoid zone of terror.
Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself) rents a Paris apartment whose previous tenant, Simone Choule, attempted suicide by throwing herself out of the window. Originally unassuming, over time, the subdued Trelkovsky begins to fear he’s turning into Simone, exacerbated by landlord Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas), the concierge (Shelley Winters) and Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani), all of whom he thinks are in on a conspiracy to drive him insane.
Polanski casting himself as the lead opens the meaning of The Tenant up to all manner of interpretation. If the casting decision does suggest something biographical – Trelkovsky, like Polanski, has duel French and Polish citizenship – then what does it represent? Is it about Polanski’s frustration at the time (1976) as a filmmaker? Trelkovsky is constantly under a barrage of criticism from those around him, choosing instead to seek solace. He thinks these people want to change him, or destroy him altogether – this, maybe, is the paranoia of the artist.
Or maybe it’s Polanski parodying his own work, typically making a psychological thriller, set in an apartment building, with himself at the core, that may be about nothing in particular. This is part of the genius of The Tenant – each viewer will come away with something, even if that’s just the literal view that The Tenant is a damn fine thriller about one man’s mental breakdown. With an invading score by Philippe Sarde and grand cinematography by Sven Nykvist, the film is at the very least an aural and visual delight.
Though adapted from the novel by Roland Topor, The Tenant feels unique to Polanski. It has the gothic, earthy touch of the man’s early films, with the ‘modern’ world – here it’s a 1970s Paris desperately clinging on to the remnants of 60s cool – feeling in touch with an ancient one. Pagan elements like a tooth embedded in an apartment wall, or the scene in which Trelkovsky discovers a room adorned with Egyptian hieroglyphics, puts us in touch with a doomy suggested history.
Polanski isn’t half bad in the lead role, flanked by a panoply of those character-filled faces the director so loves. Shelley Winters in particular is an inspired choice as the concierge, her saccharine face made bloated and hateful. That most of the rest of the cast are Europeans obviously dubbed by American voices only adds to the deep creepiness of the picture. Whether that was the intention is unclear, but it lends heft to the idea that The Tenant is some knowing film exercise, mischievously keen to point out that it’s a movie whenever it can.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.