The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Tenant.

criterion logoAn apartment with an unhappy past, in a building filled with faintly sinister residents, sets the stage for Roman Polanksi’s riveting thriller The Tenant.  Polanski plays Trelkovsky, a quiet, timid file clerk whose unremarkable life becomes increasingly overshadowed with dread and fear after he moves into his new home.  Adding to his paranoia are the building’s other occupants, who do nothing to alleviate his growing obsession with the untimely, tragic fate of the apartment’s previous tenant.  Is Trelkovsky’s dread truly justified – or is it simply the result of his seemingly disintegrating mental state?  A brilliant international cast and Polanski’s own penchant for packaging and delivering unprecedented suspense make The Tenant a haunting, riveting conclusion to his Apartment Trilogy.

Disc Features:

Let’s kick-off highbrow horror month with an MMC! favourite, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.  The third film in Polanski’s so-called Apartment Trilogy, The Tenant maintains the themes of entrapment and paranoia while depicting an altogether more uncertain descent into madness.  Given that the two preceding films in the trilogy, Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), are already part of the Collection, The Tenant is hardly a surprising choice for consideration, yet it is certainly viewed as a minor work in Polanski’s filmography and the least considered of the Apartment Trilogy, perhaps explaining its delay or omission in being granted a wacky “C” and a spine number.  For our dollar, however, The Tenant is an unheralded classic and the most rewarding film of the trilogy for the uncertainties within its plot and the multitude of approaches, explanations, and interpretations that it inspires.

Polanksi himself stars as Trelkovsky, a modest and soft-spoken file clerk who rents a Paris apartment left vacant after the previous tenant, Simone Choule, threw herself from its window and fell through a glass awning to the courtyard’s pavement.  Trelkovsky visits Choule in the hospital and meets her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani), only to be chased away when his presence elicits horrible screams from Choule, who is encased in a full-body cast.  Life in Choule’s apartment becomes increasingly challenging for Trelkovsky.  Complaints about noise from his flat, whether real or perceived, becomes increasingly aggressive and his position as a Polish-born French citizen is frequently used as a means to intimidate him, as the other tenants work to have a foreign-accented woman and her daughter evicted from the building.  The pushiness of his neighbours becomes something more sinister when Trelkovsky find his apartment robbed, discovers a tooth hidden within a hole in the apartment’s wall, and observes other residents standing motionless in the floor’s bathroom for extended periods of time.  Gradually, Trelkovsky concludes that the building’s residents are plotting against him, working to obliterate his own identity, transform him into Choule, and then press him into taking his own life as she attempted.  Initially, these steps are seen in minor acts, such as the local bar consistently serving Trelkovsky Choule’s typical orders, but Trelkovsky’s resistance becomes madness and paranioa, feeding the transformation rather than resisting it, causing Trelkovsky to hallucinate malevolence and violence by the other tenants against him and increasingly presenting himself in various degrees of drag.  At the film’s conclusion, Trelkovsky imagines the building awaiting his final demise and he leaps from his window to the courtyard below, while in full drag, not once but twice.  Trelkovsky awakens in a hospital, looking up at himself and Stella, reliving his earlier visit from the position of Choule.

The Tenant operates like a kind of anti-Cartesian return of the repressed.  Rather than consciousness being safely divorced from physicality, it is the body that leads the way and the gradual physical slippages Trelkovsky experiences presage the mental breakdown and identity confusion he experiences.  This is where body horror meets psychodrama, and Polanski teases our way through it with missing teeth, mysteriously applied make-up, and obsessive cross-dressing that provides the context for the film’s best line – Trelkovsky’s coy and creepy admission, “I think I’m pregnant.”  Polanski hints at the leaks in Trelkovsky’s psyche early.  While many are fond of the scene of Trelkovsky littering the building’s hallways and stairs with refuse spilling from his post-party garbage (only to have inexplicably disappeared when he returns), watch for those conspicuous little patches of toilet paper blotting shaving cuts; they’re the first holes in the boat.

Polanksi’s Trelkovsky is the literal centre of The Tenant.  All of the film’s scenes include him, and so questions of perspective, reliability, and causation become open for debate as his mind begins to crack and The Tenant‘s plot becomes coloured by his paranoia.  Personally, The Tenant and its Egyptian iconography has always evoked a supernatural sensibility with Choule’s apartment akin to a mummy’s tomb and Trelkovsky’s dissolving identity evidence of its curse.  Saint Michael’s College English professor Robert Niemi cites a similarly metaphysical basis for Trelkovsky’s condition, asserting that he is invaded by Choule’s soul at the hospital while she lays dying.  Paranormal answers for The Tenant are few though, and Niemi also supports an alternative reading that maintains Trelkovsky is the one responsible for Choule’s fall from her apartment window and his breakdown is based in his own repressed guilt.  How else does Trelkovsky know of the apartment’s vacancy?  Is that why Choule screams at him in the hospital?  Is Trelkovsky revealed to be a deceitful person when he tells Stella he’s making a telephone call when he’s in fact using the restroom?  Is his obsession with the toilet across from his apartment and his fear of his neighbours due to concern that someone may have seen him push Choule from the window?  Is Polanski’s choice to play Trelkovsky indicative of his own feelings of guilt over the events leading to his flight from the United States and, in turn, suggestive of Trelkovsky’s culpability?  There is certainly a natural desire to read The Tenant against Polanski’s troubled life (including fending for himself as a child for years in Poland during World War II, the murder of his wife by the Manson family, and a self-imposed exile from America following charges of statutory rape).  Tom McCormack sees The Tenant as the Apartment Trilogy’s clearest evocation of Polanksi’s WWII experience as a Holocaust survivor, Penelope Gilliatt describes it as a statement on “the ache of exile,” and Stanka Radovic sees it as an expression of xenophobia and abjection.  And while critics like J. Hoberman percieves it as “true psychodrama” and Mary Wild detects an undercurrent of repressed homosexuality, still other critics like Jake Euker and Jonathan McCalmont emphasize the surrealism, absurdity, and silliness of The Tenant in the face of persecution and tragedy.

Much of the uncertainty (and pleasure) of The Tenant seems to derive from a narrative openness that calls into question what is being presented.  Aaron Smuts’ analysis, “Sympathetic spectators: Roman Polanski’s Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976),” accurately notes that end portions of the film bifurcate the narrative between what is actually occurring (depicted conventionally) and what Trelkovsky perceives (depicted through a formally distorted perspective).  Smuts argues that this implies that the earlier portions are factual given their naturalist style, yet acknowledges that certain scenes, such as those disclosing the neighbours’ odd bathroom behaviour, betray an otherwise reliable narrative construction.  These slippages, intended and unaccountable, makes The Tenant a fascinating film that provokes dread, laughter, and questioning all at once.

Tenant Neven UdovicicWith Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby already within the Collection, Criterion is comfortably positioned to add The Tenant to its selection of scary movies.  Neven Udovicic’s alternative poster nicely abstracts the confused world of The Tenant, although that knife on the room’s floor seems anomalous.  With a darker colour palette (a black background and a white title), Udovicic’s poster would make a suitably foreboding cover treatment.

Credits:  Most significant to this post has been Altscreen‘s survey of the critical commentary on The Tenant.  Other discussions contributing to this post include Tom McCormack’s article on the Apartment Trilogy for Altscreen.com, Aaron Smuts’s essay at Kinoeye, Jake Euker’s essay “Too Much” at PopMatters, Jonathan McCalmont’s “The Panic Tone – Polanski and Topor’s The Tenant (1976)” at Ruthless Culture, Nick Schager’s review at Slant, Simon Columb’s article at Flickeringmyth.com, Ingrid Fernandez’s essay “Visions of the Other: The Return of the Abject in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant” for Bright Lights Film Journal, Stanka Radovic’s “Evicting the Tenant” for Film International, A. Alvarez’s interview of Polanski, and Robert Niemi’s posted email chain.  Roman Polanski has provided director commentaries for his other films in the Criterion Collection and would make even greater sense here considering Polanski also stars in The Tenant.  The proposed booklet contains a lot of contributors, but the number of critics providing quality analyses with differing approaches on the film really demands that a Criterion edition of The Tenant explore all the film has to offer.  The back cover summary is derived from the Paramount DVD release.

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3 thoughts on “The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

  1. Mike Bazanele February 4, 2017 / 3:08 pm

    Great article! Great film! In the wake of the Guillermo del Toro Trilogia, the Apartment Trilogy needs the same treatment: a box set with all new art.

    • spinenumbered February 4, 2017 / 3:47 pm

      Thanks Mike. And I would buy that set in a heartbeat!

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