Monday, March 28, 2011

Madness, Rage, Petulance, and The Tenant

(This is my contribution to the Roman Polanski Blogathon hosted March 27-29, 2011, by Cinema Directives.)

Released in 1976 and premiering at that year's Cannes festival, Roman Polanski's The Tenant is the third installment of his so-called Apartment Trilogy, after Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, a handy way of yoking together three of his movies that appear conceived along similar lines. Set in great cities of the world (London, New York, and Paris) and focused on fragile characters confined to relatively small spaces within them, all three deal to varying degrees with insanity and the paranormal in confusing and terrifying circumstances. They are creepy and effective, each fitting neatly enough into the horror genre, albeit going well beyond genre expectations.

I have always read The Tenant as the most personal of them, not least, perhaps, because Polanski himself takes the starring role and indeed occupies a good deal of the screen time (though never formally credited). It's hard not to see Polanski struggling to make something of his larger personal experience with the unnerving and disquieting story that The Tenant tells. Though not the first movie Polanski made after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate, when she was just two weeks shy of giving birth to their child, I think it may be the first in which he attempted to address the repercussions of that event and others in his life.

It's as if Polanski wants us to see the ravages he has suffered, how he has been damaged, destroyed, driven mad. He enters into the role of the timid Trelkovsky, mild-mannered clerk, and thrusts himself at us in this guise, as if waving his arms and screaming, "Look what has happened to me. Can't you see the pain I am in?" But he does so coolly, as one who knows well that his survival has always depended on never giving away such blunt interior facts about himself. And so the rage animating him begins to turn around itself in a spiral, a feedback loop between the cognitive dissonance of the agonies he has suffered and the privileges he enjoys, feinting now towards temper and now coyly towards affected ennui, and settling finally on madness as the most apt expression of the position in which he finds himself. Remarkably, the mix of temperament serves equally well as an enduring figure for the entire arc of his life and career, before and after this picture, which he made when he was 42 years old.

Polanski's 1984 autobiography is typically enough not much help in unearthing how he conceived what he is about on this project. He writes, "The Tenant was my fastest feature film ever—eight months from unadapted novel to first public screening—and I finished shooting it even before contracts were signed.... It was hard work but the mere fact of being back in Paris galvanized me.... The opening sequence, in which a remote-controlled crane-mounted camera explores the outside of the building and finally enters a doorway to film an interior, was one of the most intricate and satisfying shots I have ever attempted.... From my own point of view The Tenant was a further education in the difficulties of simultaneously acting and directing."

It's thus left for us to piece it together and make our guesses. The Tenant always surprises me first by the churning sense it conveys from very early, starting even with the loud, strange affect of the building concierge (played by Shelley Winters), of something practically volcanic simmering just under its surface. The callous disregard that everyone evinces for the attempted suicide of the former occupant of the apartment that Trelkovsky wants so badly—just an unpleasant nuisance.

The steps that Trelkovsky takes to secure the apartment, the urgency with which he pursues it, seem extraordinary: bribing the concierge and yet dickering hard on terms with the landlord, going to the hospital to pay a disturbing visit to the dying former tenant, Mlle. Choule, and pretending to be a friend in order to better monitor her situation and make his move on the apartment as soon as possible after she dies. Such actions may be appropriate for acquiring a place to live in its time and place but nonetheless seem beyond the pale, particularly in the face of the suicide attempt and horrific condition of Mlle. Choule in the hospital.

The tone and mood throughout remain resolutely off-kilter. People don't behave right, but it's hard to put a finger on what's wrong. The building concierge laughs humorlessly when she first mentions the suicide attempt to Trelkovsky. At the hospital, Trelkovsky meets Stella (played by Isabelle Adjani), a friend of Mlle. Choule, who asks the nurse, "Is there any hope of saving her?" "What do you mean?" the pinch-faced nurse responds impatiently, standing over the bed with them. "If we can save her, we save her."

Stella is upset by the hospital visit and Trelkovsky takes her for a drink afterward. A street bum stops them and beats Trelkovsky out of money, saying, "You don't want to look cheap in front of your girlfriend, do you?" Later they go to a Bruce Lee movie, where Stella comes on to Trelkovsky sexually. It's weird, furtive; they grope one another in the dark until Trelkovsky notices a strange man in the row behind them, staring. After the movie Stella and Trelkovsky go their separate ways.

Trelkovsky attends the funeral of Mlle. Choule, hoping to run into Stella again. He sees her and tries to catch her eye, even as the eulogy drones on: "The worms shall consume thy eyes, thy lips, thy mouth. They shall enter into the ears. They shall enter into the nostrils. Thy body shall putrefy into its innermost recesses and shall give off a noisome stench. Yea, Christ is ascended into heaven and hath joined the host of angels on high, but not for creeps like you, full of the basest vice, yearning only for carnal satisfaction."

Even in very small ways the film keeps one off balance, uncertain and constantly losing one's bearings. There's something off about some of the looping, particularly in the scenes that feature Trelkovsky's self-evidently shallow and casually malicious co-workers. Or maybe that's something about the prints I've seen? The voices don't seem connected to the characters, there's a quality to the sound of their speech that's similar to dubbed films, or to the experience of drive-in movies (which California resident Polanski had no doubt witnessed himself by then), when the mismatched distances from screen and speaker create a bewildering lag, a sense of displacement, which in turn seems of a piece with Polanski's larger intent.

Once in the apartment, Trelkovsky is happy as only people can be moving into new apartments in big cities, full of hope and energized optimism and a newfound feeling of being at home. But it doesn't last long. The neighbors complain constantly, bicker and attempt to enlist him in their disputes, and pound the walls and ceiling and floor on every side of him when he makes the slightest noise. The bathroom, which he shares with others on his floor, is visible across a courtyard from his apartment. It is likely the most disturbing bathroom ever to find its way into a movie. People stand in there for hours at a time at night, staring, and the sight of it is as shocking and unnerving for us as it is for Trelkovsky.

It is also, unfortunately, almost exactly the point where the picture begins to lose its way. By this time, of course, Trelkovsky is slipping into madness, into a kind of hallucinatory delusion and fantasy that seems uniquely suited to Polanski, shot through with paranoia and elements of humiliation and intimacies of violence. If it's hard to notice exactly where or when the madness begins—hard to know, that is, what is real and what delusion (does Trelkovsky really, for example, find a tooth in a hole in the wall behind the armoire, or does he just imagine that he does?)—it's even harder to miss as it develops and becomes broader and ever more ridiculous.

Once Trelkovsky has entered full into the transvestism that marks the the finale, the picture has gone well and truly over the top and loses, I think, much of its effectiveness. It's as if Polanski had finally yielded his first impulse to make a nifty, chilling psychological horror thriller based on emotional realities of his personal experience to an overweening need to expose himself in a way that is almost passive-aggressive. The sources of his anger are rooted deeply in his biography; he has a perfect right to it. He just needs to claim it. But at the last moment, in a pattern that is typical in many ways of his work, arguably of his life itself, some failure of nerve prevents that and is replaced instead by a discreet remove to a carefully intellectualized vantage, a place where it is all too easy to smile ironically and shake one's head at the extremes of behavior in others.

On Trelkovsky's first suicide attempt, leaping from his apartment window, a shot from below shows the skirt he wears flying up over his hips and revealing his panties. It's almost as if, in that moment, Polanski is mooning us even as he drags out the resolution of this story interminably. What started as very nearly a kind of uniquely affecting cry of pain in the end becomes little more than a fit of pique.


  1. I should revisit this movie, which I haven't seen since its release. My primary memory is of the ending ... I'd say spoiler alert but you've got lots of plot details already ... when his suicide attempt fails and he goes back and does it again.

    I've always thought of Macbeth as his "Sharon Tate" movie, but you make a good argument here for The Tenant.

  2. Excellent review- I haven't seen this in years, but your take on this work makes me want to see it again soon.

    Thanks for contributing to my blogathon.

  3. Thank you Tom -- great blogathon. Some very interesting and enjoyable pieces.

  4. Thank you for this great review. I thought I knew all about this film, which is my all-time favorite, but you managed to underline exactly the aspects I've overlooked, concentrating on exactly the opposite (I would be eternally grateful if you had a look

    One more thing -

    "The voices don't seem connected to the characters, there's a quality to the sound of their speech that's similar to dubbed films, or to the experience of drive-in movies (which California resident Polanski had no doubt witnessed himself by then), when the mismatched distances from screen and speaker create a bewildering lag, a sense of displacement, which in turn seems of a piece with Polanski's larger intent."

    There are two versions of the film, both are original, but one is English- and the other French-speaking, so half the cast were dubbed in either case, the only one who speaks in his own voice in both versions is Trelkovsky (Polanski) himself, both times exaggerating his accent. This sure does add this peculiar quality, whether intended or not. Knowing how particular Polanski is to the sound of his films, it may very well be the desired effect.

  5. Ah, thank you Jean, that explains that. And, yes, I have to think it's deliberate, certainly at this point, when so many other multilingual films tend to opt for subtitles. And given that Polanski shot his scenes twice for both languages. It's certainly disorienting. Thanks for clearing up!

    I enjoyed your own piece quite a bit, and will offer some more extensive comments over at your place.