“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity
PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.
- Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
- Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
- The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
- Lensed by Sven Nykvist, ‘s favorite cinematographer.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even ) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.
Original trailer for The Tenant
COMMENTS: Trelkovsky—no first name—is an improbably quiet and polite man—he should apply for a place as a clerk in a Dostoevsky novel—who is accused of being a boisterous troublemaker and lech. He is almost comically subservient and self-sacrificing, and all it brings him is rudeness and abuse at the hands of bullies. He is a nobody, a real nowhere man. He begins the story with a problem—he has little money and, it would seem, no place of his own to live. Before the film starts, he has gotten a tip from somewhere of an available apartment. The situation is sketchy, though; the previous tenant is still lingering on in the hospital from a failed suicide attempt, and he has to bribe the inhospitable concierge just to show the place.
To live in the apartment—to have a precious home, a place to belong—Trelkovsky must conform to the rules of his new residence. Landlord Monsieur Z, and all the other tenants, are obsessed with respectability and rules: the most important of which is to stay quiet. After landing the apartment, Trelkovsky clearly breaks this primary directive with a somewhat raucous housewarming party, and the other tenants never trust him again. Now, if he makes the slightest scraping sound while moving furniture, he is met with angry banging on the walls. He becomes paranoid and fears the others are persecuting him. His suspicions appear justified by the tenants’ backstabbing treatment of another renter, a poor woman with a disabled child. Anonymous complaints circulate about her allegedly noisy lifestyle, and she confronts Trelkovsky to see if he is the instigator. Later, a particularly nasty neighbor pressures him to join in a petition against the persecuted woman; his refusal to sign earns him vague threats. The tenement building is a totalitarian regime where the tenants inform on each other to enforce conformity to the strict anti-noise ordinance. No wonder Trelkovsky turns paranoid.
On another level, there’s a good deal of sexual repression and hints of gender confusion in the movie, but unlikein Repulsion, sex does not seem to be at the root of Trelkovsky’s existential crisis. He has problems with sexual identity not because he is a repressed homosexual, but because he is (perhaps literally) possessed by the previous tenant, a woman—and a lesbian, at that. One of the earliest scenes in which we question Trevolsky’s sanity occurs at the funeral of Simone, whose room he will soon inherit. The priest’s sermon is uncomfortably accusatory, and seems addressed directly to Trelkovsky: “Yea, Christ has ascended into Heaven, and have joined the host of angels on high. But not for creeps like you, full of the basest vice, yearning only for carnal satisfaction.” Sexual guilt is implied, but despite the fact that the homily makes Trelkovsky so uncomfortable he flees the service, is it really directed at him? His desire for Stella hardly makes him a cad—in fact, she’s the aggressor in the relationship, grabbing his genitals at a movie when they are still essentially strangers. Meek as he is, Trelkovsky is even more uncomfortable around the opposite sex than he is with his boisterous work friends. But he is able to carry on a sexual relationship—though tellingly, only with Simone’s friend Stella, a woman to whom the deceased may have been sexual attracted. There is a wispy possibility, hardly explored but consistent with the evidence, that Simone has possessed Trevolsky and used him as a vessel to seduce the heterosexual woman with whom she was secretly in love. Trevolsky’s cross-dressing late in the film is included because it was shocking to contemporary audiences, but it does not seem intended to be read as a sign of his own perversion, sexual confusion or latent homosexuality. His identity has been subsumed by Simone’s spirit and he has lost himself so thoroughly that he becomes his own opposite: a homosexual woman, rather than a heterosexual man.
Trelkovsky fails to follow to the anti-noise regulations, and he also fails to conform to society’s gender roles. But he wants to; he craves acceptance from his neighbors, he wants a quiet, undisturbed life. Yet he is doomed to never fit in. Perhaps there is a supernatural influence at play. Perhaps there is a conspiracy. Most likely, however, Trelkovsky is simply an alien who will never truly be one of “us,” and he goes mad from his own conviction that others will never accept his essential difference. It’s his implicit desire to conform, even more than external pressures, that is his downfall. The point of view switches between Trelkovsky’s subjectivity and an objective perspective. At one point it appears that a fellow resident is strangling him, then we see him with his hands around his own throat. We see the gathered neighbors goading him to throw himself out the window, then we see incompatible scenes of them showing shock and concern at his self-destructive behavior. Although each incident may or may not happen the way the film depicts it, overall there is no ambiguity about Trelkovsky’s insanity. The final shot suggests a supernatural explanation, but this is not inconsistent with his madness. Unlike neighbors in cramped quarters, literal and allegorical explanations are able to coexist peacefully.
Much has been made—properly so—about how personal this material was too Polanski. He was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust as a child by pretending to be Catholic. He lived most of his life as an immigrant, first in France and then in America; he was always an outsider, and would also officially become an exile and a fugitive in just a few years. A tenant is a temporary resident, not a property owner with a permanent connection to the place where he lives. The Tenant describes the experience of an immigrant. Trevolsky is constantly reminded of his status as an outsider: he is forced to repeatedly remind people that he is a French citizen, although this fact never impresses anyone. Always suspected by his neighbors because of his outsider status, but trying to follow the rules as best he can—though they seem strange to him—Trelkovsky is finally assimilated, but only when he goes mad. He loses his own identity and (literally?) becomes someone else. Though presented through the lens of an immigrant, the parable could serve as a warning to any misfit. The pessimistic message is that, faced with a world that refuses to accept your differences, your choices are to conform, lose your identity, go mad, or die—or maybe to suffer all these fates at once.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…like REPULSION, THE TENANT tries to bridge the gap between audience and character, using bizarre, surreal flourishes to put the viewer into the mind of the madman… THE TENANT creates its own strange Kafka-esque landscape, where inexplicable events breed and give birth to ominous portents lurking in the shadows of the mind.”–Steve Biodrowsky, Cinefantastique (DVD)
“…the comically escalating sense of dread is a refinement of Polanski’s Beckett-bleak worldview, where weaklings, assholes and weirdos jostle for control, and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are of helping the suffering of others.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion
IMDB LINK: The Tenant (1976)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Tenant | A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity – Four separate analyses of the film, along with a short chat between the authors
Sympathetic spectators – Kinoeye‘s Aaron Smuts considers whether Trelkovsky is an unreliable narrator
Disturbing Movies: or the Flip Side of the Real – Robert Castle includes The Tenant in his analysis of what makes a film “disturbing” for Bright Lights Film Journal
DVD INFO: While the other two entries in the “Apartment Trilogy” have both received Criterion Collection treatment, The Tenant has always been the odd man out. Currently, it is only available in a bare bones edition from Paramount (buy), with no extras except the theatrical trailer. It has never been released on Blu-ray but is available digitally on-demand (buy or rent on-demand).
UPDATE 7/28/2020: Shout! Factory has plugged the North American Blu-ray hole with a deluxe release of The Tenant (buy). It includes the French soundtrack (a big wishlist item for film fans who wanted to hear
(This movie was nominated for review by Kevin, who said “All three of [Polanski’s] ‘apartment’ movies are pretty weird, but I would venture to say that The Tenant is the weirdest.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)