Roman Polanski, 1976
Starring: Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet
A man, Trelkovsky, finds out about a newly vacated apartment in Paris and inquires about moving in. It seems the previous tenant, Simone, jumped from the window and badly injured herself. She dies a few days later in the hospital and Trelkovsky moves in to her apartment, which is still full of her belongings. His landlord and neighbors, who are all strange and obsessed with quiet, begin to wear on the passive Trelkovsky. He has a few friends over and receives a complaint about noise. As the days pass, they complain about seemingly any movement he makes, among other things, and he finds a human tooth hidden in his wall.
Trelkovsky comes to believe that his neighbors are trying to transform him into Simone, as they increasingly request him to pick up her habits. This eventually drives the paranoid Trelkovsky to buy a wig and put on some of Simone’s make up and one of her dresses. He tries to form a relationship with Stella, a friend of Simone’s, but comes to believe that she is part of his neighbors’ conspiracy to drive him mad. He becomes desperate to avoid becoming Simone at any cost and his life begins to unravel.
The Tenant is the last film in director Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, which includes Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. All three films focus on the growing madness and paranoia an individual (female characters in the first two films) experiences in a claustrophobic apartment setting. He explores the unnaturalness of living in a small space and the hazards of city life, particularly the dissolution of identity and the encroachment of society upon the individual. The Tenant explores these themes in more overt and comic ways than the earlier films in the trilogy.
That is the most important thing to remember about The Tenant - it is an absurdist work full of subtle humorist work and if you think of it as a straightforward horror film, you are likely to be disappointed. Trelvoksky’s attempts to follow the rules his neighbors lay down for him are comical. Their obsession with noise becomes contagious, jarring, and invasive. It would be easy to see both the novel and film as a critique against either the Nazi or Soviet governments. Both Polanski and the novel’s author Roland Topor lived through the former.
Based on Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimerique (1964), this is yet another film about an outsider, the film is concerned with issues of identity and privacy. Trelkovsky is seen as a foreigner and constantly has to remind everyone that he is a French citizen, despite his Polish name and accent. His foreignness increases once he moves into the apartment, where the other tenants constantly set him apart. It is unclear if this is in his mind or is really happening. Some elements seem supernatural, but unlike the more developed Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant keeps things as ambiguous as possible.
There are definite elements of body horror that are also subtly present in the earlier Apartment trilogy films - the woman who jumps out the window and Trelvoksky’s visit to her in the hospital, the disabled girl, a tooth hidden in the wall, Trelkovsky seeing doubles of himself, the car accident, and his gradual transvestism.
In addition to directing, Polanski also stars as Trelkovsky. Polanski had previously acted in his own films and the works of other directors, including a starring role in his comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. He does an excellent job as the quickly unraveling Trelkovsky and is in nearly every shot of the film. He is funny, manic, and creepy in turns. He’s supported by a number of well-known actors, namely Isabelle Adjani, who plays his brief love interest, Stella. A mix of neurotic and ditzy, she exudes none of the madness or vulnerability found in her more famous roles. Shelley Winters and Melvyn Douglas also have great cameos and bring the full force of their personalities down on the film, remaining far more memorable than their limited screen time.
This is one of Polanski’s least regarded works and I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the glacial pacing, but there is some great atmosphere and wonderful cinematography from Polanski’s regular collaborator Sven Nykvist. There’s also a lovely score from Philippe Sarde that references some of the more comical elements of the film. If you can approach this more as a paranoid, absurdist tale, rather than as a horror film, it has much more to offer. The Tenant is available on DVD, though hopefully one day it will join the other two films of the Apartment Trilogy with a special edition Criterion release. A box set would be even better.