Oblique Tales from the Aquatic Sublime: John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea

Vertigo Sea may be overwhelming at times, but a deep dive into this immensely beautiful and mesmerising work is worth your time. Take a deep breath...

© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery/Arnolfini.

John Akomfrah’s work has long dealt with issues pertaining to migration, postcolonialism, multiculturalism, cultural amnesia. Born in Ghana in 1957 to parents involved in the country’s independence movement, moving to London at the age of four and coming of artistic age during the peak of Thatcher’s destructive reign (co-founding the Black Audio Film Collective during this time), Akomfrah is better placed than most to do so. Across its 48-and-a-half minutes, Vertigo Sea continues to explore these themes but expands the outlook into ecological concerns.

Vertigo Sea extrapolates on a career-long exploration of the montage, a form, Akomfrah has explained, “Allows the possibility of reengagement, of the return to the image with renewed purpose.” If Handsworth Songs (1986) is rightly seen as a landmark in the montage-laden essay film genre (if it is its own genre), Vertigo Sea explodes it into a whole new realm.

Specifically filmed tableaux populated by often lonesome figures in archaic costumes and abstractly dressed landscapes mix with a heady brew of archival footage (a large proportion of which is drawn from the BBC Natural History unit) and photographs. Akomfrah is something of a master of the collation and transposition of archival material; as he has said, “It’s important to read images in the archive for their ambiguity and open-endedness.” As has been much discussed elsewhere, this bricolage format seeks to return some agency to its subjects and its viewers, by letting both parties exist without directing either how to speak or how to respond – of course, there is a great deal of mediation between Akomfrah’s film and the audience, but at no point does he didactically beat you about the head.

A deep Derek Jarman-esque blue encompasses you in Vertigo Sea’s opening moments, the title in an antiquated font, then the subtitle: Oblique Tales from the Aquatic Sublime. The blue immersion recurs periodically throughout – paragraph or page breaks, perhaps. Both the title and the subtitle are, at a surface level, appropriate. At times, the film can certainly feel overwhelming, both as a visual spectacle and in its occasionally terrifying, often beautiful, scope - sublime in the truest sense, then.

© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery/Arnolfini.

You feel the vertigo - dizzy, giddy and unstable as you drift atop and peer down into a vast ocean of history, a miasma of memory and forgotten people, animals, acts, murders, massacres, slaughter, disaster. Spread across three screens, often disparate in their depictions, one cannot help but be reminded of the triptych – that form perhaps better than any other to encapsulate both the beauty of Creation (as in depictions of the Virgin and Child) and of man’s inhumanity to man (the Crucifixion). Perhaps more than any other triptych, one could think of Hieronymus Bosch’s disturbing and compelling The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490 – 1510) (referred to explicitly in Akomfrah’s 2012 piece Peripeteia), if nothing else than for their shared density. On one screen you may have a submerged whale or a lonesome polar bear, on another a thunderstorm or melting ice caps, on another a photograph of a victim of Pinochet’s regime or a dramatized recreation of murdered black bodies washed upon the beach; on another a mysterious Caspar David Friedrich-esque Rückenfigur silently looking out over a Romantic landscape or hooded and half-submerged, looking out to the sea like one of Anthony Gormley’s unsettling Another Place sculptures.

The vertiginous sensation is scarcely ameliorated by other textual levels, the various voiceovers that boom out across the ambient soundscape – Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Heathcoate Williams, Friedrich Nietzsche, BBC news reportage – as well as written quotes from Jorge Luis Borges, Edwin Morgan and Fred D’Aguiar (and these are only some examples of those quoted).

We hear a Nigerian migrant’s account from 2007 of brutality adrift in the Mediterranean, abandoned by the pilot of the boat carrying the human cargo he once was. Then, the repentant former slave trader and abolitionist, the Reverend John Newton (1725 – 1807) intones, “Why do I speak of one child, when I have heard of over a hundred men cast into the sea?”, words from 1787 on the Zong massacre of 1781, where 133 slaves were thrown overboard for insurance purposes. The equivalence that is being presented is clear but not lacking in nuance, just one of many associations at work at any given time in Vertigo Sea. The constant juxtapositions occurring across these different forms can draw you into any number of interpretative whirlpools.

© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery/Arnolfini.

Newton may have come across the Zong massacre in an account by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 1797), an Igbo slave who bought his freedom and became the first black person to explore the Arctic, the first black employee of the British government and a bestselling author with his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). Equiano is one of the mysterious Romantic figures, gazing from mountaintops across great chasms, resplendent in a tricorn hat and red jacket, every bit the 18th-century confronter of the sublime. One cannot help but feel Equiano is watching everything, seeing everything that is happening in this film. He transcends the gap between the African and the European, the captive and the master, the ‘noble savage’ and the refined intellectual, the imperialist and the abolitionist. He refutes the simplicities of these sometimes offensive reductions and dualities. Is he waiting for something, as he looks at the clock in his hand? Waiting for everyone else to catch up?

Someone else who appears to be waiting is the old man in black and white, who recurs with increasing frequency toward the end of the film. As with so many of the other images or quotes in the film, the viewer cannot necessarily be expected to know what or who is being represented, but this is Béla Bartók, as portrayed by Boris Ranevsky in Ken Russell’s 1964 Monitor episode about the composer. He looks frail, completely lost in thought, sitting uncomfortably as if expectant of an arrival or an impending cataclysm, alone in a Spartan attic room, little but a gramophone for company. Bartók fled his native Hungary, an Axis member, having been a committed antifascist. Exiled to an unfamiliar place, feeling stripped of purpose and thus of agency, he hides in his room, overwhelmed by confrontations with the outside world – an outside world that appears hostile, but is not innately so. He is a political migrant, a refugee of war, not unlike those who have been forced to flee to Europe in recent years. He escaped the grim fate such those critics of Pinochet had, thrown into the sea from helicopters in the middle of the night, or that of the similarly treated crevettes Bigeard (‘Bigeard’s shrimps’) of the Algerian War – all further ghosts of the deep whose photographs and stories haunt Akomfrah’s film. Bartók’s troubled, distant gaze is obvious, whether you know who he is or not, and the chances are you don’t. You cannot help but ask yourself – what is he haunted by? A place he has left behind? An awful deed? Or an idea he wants to leave behind, but will not leave him? Bartók fought an ideology, but had no choice but to run away.

Europe’s darkest chapter also resonates subtly through an early part of Vertigo Sea, when you hear a quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a text that introduced the Übermensch to the world – a concept that, rightly or wrongly, leads almost everyone to the horror of the same ideology that drove Bartók to America. “In the end one only experiences oneself.” While there is no doubt a lot of truth in such an assertion - that one’s whole existence is defined by one’s unique, subjective experience of the world - it seems that Vertigo Sea refutes this somewhat solipsistic perspective.

© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery/Arnolfini.

Akomfrah has said that the film was partly sparked off by “the realisation that everything overlaps at some profound level, that the great shifts in human progress that are made possible by technology can also cause the profoundest of suffering.” The idea that our world is a complex, interwoven tissue is fairly starkly represented by the form of the film alone – the collage (of sorts) across the three screens of the various images mentioned already. The connection between the perilous migrations and human abuses that have transpired over the last few centuries is perhaps more obvious than that between the aforementioned and the abuses that have happened and are happening to wildlife and the environment.  But Akomfrah’s places them next to each other, suggesting to the viewer that there must be some connection or connections to be made.

Daisy Hildyard’s recent book The Second Body (2017) has a certain kinship with Vertigo Sea. Early in her extended essay, Hildyard writes “There is a way of speaking which implicates your body in everything on earth. Dead whales have something to do with you…the freak storm and the changing seasons are consequences of actions performed by your body. Meanwhile, in the human world, there are car bombs going off in Baghdad every day.”  Elsewhere: “[Y]our first body is the body you inhabit in your daily life”, and the ‘second body’ of the title is a product of climate change which “…creates a new language...It makes every animal body implicated in the whole world.” In true essay form, Hildyard’s book drifts away into something more personal which seeks to prove the thrust of the opening chapters, but its core position is a powerful distillation of this contemporary feeling that we do not just affect our immediate surroundings.

Hildyard’s concept of the ‘second body’ appears to be heavily influenced by Timothy Morton, whose work also informs Akomfrah’s recent six channel installation Purple (2017). Morton posits that ‘hyperobjects’ such as global warming mean “changing our relationship with other entities in the universe – whether one of animal, vegetable or mineral – to one of solidarity. If we fail to do this, we will continue to wreak havoc on the planet…we cannot transcend our limitations or our reliance on other beings. We can only live with them.” This language, most particularly the use of the word ‘solidarity’, certainly chimes with the Marxist over/undertones of much of Akomfrah’s work.

© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery/Arnolfini.

The dead whales that Hildyard mentions appear frequently in Vertigo Sea. There are frequent images of whaling, not just the harpooning of whales, but the scoring of enormous walls of flesh, fat and blood and entrails pouring across the decks of ships and whaling ports, men in oilskins wading through the slurry, the beautiful leviathans reduced to material substances. The acts these men perpetrate before us are reprehensible and difficult to watch – but why did they do it? It wasn’t a hobby. Whalers spent long stretches away from home for poor pay, working in unpleasant and frequently dangerous conditions. In short, the primary driving forces behind these acts was the pursuit of money – Capitalism.

Why were slaves kept (and killed)? To produce goods that could be sold (capital). Why does the Middle East continue to be a hotbed of turbulence, strife and conflict? Oil (capital). Much of the African continent is a disaster due to the legacy of colonialist rapacity for land (capital) and natural resources (capital), manifested through infrastructural and literal impoverishment, violence and oppression -  the continuation of these disasters is the capitalist (i.e. neo-imperialist) rapacity for much the same things, entrenched and amplified further by enormous international debt (capital).

And where do they come from, these desperate men, women and children that are deemed ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’ that drown and half-drown in the Mediterranean to (apparently) beat down our doors? You know the answer. And who is responsible? If you don’t know by now, then you ought to. Just because we know now that something was wrong (whether that something is whaling or slavery), doesn’t mean that such violence cannot or does not continue in renewed forms.

In a simple visual argument, the cause-and-effect nature of the most barbaric capitalist impulses is shown thus: the flesh of a whale is scored open on one screen; the ocean floor breaks with a tectonic fissure on another; then broken, disintegrating ice caps.

© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery/Arnolfini.

The first sound we hear in Vertigo Sea is that of a ticking clock. Clocks are all across the film’s landscape, whether spread out over beaches (as in Ken Russell’s Bartók Monitor) or in Equiano’s hand. Clocks tell us not just what time it is, they tell us what time has expired (and so, implicitly, what has passed). They also tell us what time is left. Clocks are everywhere. The past is everywhere, ticking away. Signs of time, what time has passed, what time is left. And how much time is that? You can cover the beach with clocks, but it won’t stop the tide coming in.

Vertigo Sea ends in the shimmering swell of an open orchestral chord. Among other images, a boat is trying to save a whale from beaching itself, rather than trying to kill it; back to that deep blue, the credits, and slow fades in and out of monochrome photographs of victims - ghosts of our shared histories, shared mistakes, shared violence, shared regrets, shared responsibilities. We are changing our attitude to this planet, to this ecosystem, this planet that we all cannot help but inhabit – but have we changed it soon enough? And can we say the same of the way we treat one another?

There are no answers here per se, merely nudges toward lines of thought, discussion and, perhaps, action. As Akomfrah himself as said, “Art can pose problems in unique ways, allowing for other meaningful dialogues. It’s about proposing, not imposing. At its best, it’s a two-way conversation, a dialogue with the political.” The multivalent elements of Vertigo Sea jostle about before us, (as Akomfrah would have it) ‘talking to each other’ with energy, sadness, anger, quiet optimism. You can choose to converse with this work as much as you wish - paddle as shallowly or dive as deeply as you like; but when you surface from this immensely beautiful and mesmerising work (slightly dazed, giddy, really quite breathless), there can be no doubt that each and every one of us have very important dialogues to conduct - with our ghosts, with our ecosystem, and with each other.

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea screens at Talbot Rice Gallery until 27 January; Akomfrah’s multimedia installation At The Graveside of Tarkovsky is also on display.

Andrew R. Hill


Carey-Thomas, Lizzie. Migrations: Journeys in British Art. Tate, 2012.

Hildyard, Daisy. The Second Body. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.

Akomfrah, John, director. Handsworth Songs. Black Audio Film Collective, 1986, http://www.ubu.com/film/bafc_handsworth1.html.

Akomfrah, John, director. The Stuart Hall Project. British Film Institute, 2013.

Akomfrah, John. Why History Matters | TateShots. Tate, 2 July 2015, www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/john-akomfrah-9259/john-akomfrah-why-history-matters.

“Exhibition Guide: John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea.” Arnolfini, 2016, https://www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/john-akomfrah-vertigo-sea-1/JohnAkomfrahVertigoSeaExhibitionGuide.pdf.

Austin, Thomas. “Temporal Vertigo: An Interview with John Akomfrah.” Senses of Cinema, 11 July 2016, sensesofcinema.com/2016/feature-articles/john-akomfrah-interview/.

Childs, Martin. “General Marcel Bigeard.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 30 June 2010, www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/general-marcel-bigeard-soldier-who-served-in-three-conflicts-and-became-an-expert-on-counter-2015150.html.

Dillon, Brian. Essayism. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.

Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “John Akomfrah: 'I Haven't Destroyed This Country. There's No Reason Other Immigrants Would'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Jan. 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/07/john-akomfrah-vertical-sea-arnolfini-bristol-lisson-gallery-london-migration.

Eshun, Kodwo, and Anjalika Sagar. The Ghosts of Songs: the Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998. Liverpool University Press, 2007.

Morton, Timothy. “Adbusters.” Adbusters, Nov. & Dec. 2017.

Evans, Brad. “Histories of Violence: Landscapes of Violence.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 5 June 2017, http://lareviewofbooks.org/article/histories-of-violence-landscapes-of-violence/.

Fisher, Mark. “The Land Still Lies: Handsworth Songs and the English Riots.” Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, 1 Apr. 2015, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/land-still-lies-handsworth-songs-and-english-riots.

Muñoz, Bárbara Rodríguez. “John Akomfrah: Hauntologies.” Carroll / Fletcher, 2012, www.carrollfletcher.com/usr/library/documents/main/hauntologies_publication.pdf.

O'Hagan, Sean. “John Akomfrah: 'Progress Can Cause Profound Suffering'.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 1 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/01/john-akomfrah-purple-climate-change.

Sandhu, Sukhdev. “John Akomfrah: Migration and Memory.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Jan. 2012, www.theguardian.com/film/2012/jan/20/john-akomfrah-migration-memory.

Sandhu, Sukhdev. London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City. Harper Perennial, 2004.

Scovell, Adam. “A Musicological Study of Ken Russell's Composer Films – Part 2 (Monitor and Bartok).” Celluloid Wicker Man, 12 Oct. 2015, http://celluloidwickerman.com/2014/07/21/a-musicological-study-of-ken-russells-composer-films-part-2-monitor-and-bartok/.

“Exhibition Guide: John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea.” Talbot Rice Gallery, 2017, www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/jaguide.pdf.

“John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea : Artist Talk.” Performance by John Akomfrah, et al., Talbot Rice Gallery, Nov. 2017, https://vimeo.com/239818481.

Tracy, Andrew, and Nina Power. “Deep Focus: The Essay FIlm.” Sight & Sound, Aug. 2013, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/deep-focus/essay-film.

Weiss, Haley. “John Akomfrah and the Image as Intervention.” Interview Magazine, Jason Nikic, 29 June 2016, www.interviewmagazine.com/film/john-akomfrah.

Reel Gone/3: 'Girl with a Suitcase'

Reel Gone/3: 'Girl with a Suitcase'

Valerio Zurlini is one of the most criminally underrated directors of all time. Born in Bologna in 1926, he studied law, and later art and painting, before working on a number of short films and making his feature debut with The Girls of San Frediano (Le Ragazze di San Frediano, 1954).

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Reel Gone/2: 'Toby Dammit'

Reel Gone/2: 'Toby Dammit'

Referring to any Federico Fellini film as a lost gem might seem rather absurd - after all, this is a name that is instantly recognisable to many, a name that has almost become a byword for Italian and European auteur cinema. One just needs to think about his Academy Award winning 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, a work that has helped create a certain popular idea of Italian lifestyle (and has even provided us with the eponym 'paparazzo').

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Reel Gone/1: 'Darling'

Reel Gone/1: 'Darling'

Reel Gone looks at films that we think should receive more exposure and critical attention. It's essentially an excuse to write about things we like, even if they haven't been recently released on DVD or shown in cinemas. 

Even if it sits at number  83 in the BFI Top 100 British Films list (and brought Julie Christie an Academy Award win for best actress), John Schlesinger's Darling (1965) is still a bit of a lost classic. Not as loved or even well known as the exuberant and highly inventive Billy Liar (1963), it was dismissed by its own director with some pretty damning words - "It's far too pleased with itself. I wince when I see it now". 

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Interview: Sam Knee, author of 'A Scene in Between'

Following the exclusive photo of Shop Assistants we posted on Wednesday, we're delighted to present an interview with Sam Knee, author of 'A Scene In Between: Tripping Through the Fashions of UK Indie Music'. Sam kindly took the time to provide some insight into the genesis of the book and the scene it so lovingly documents to Erika Sella.

I originally come from a town that can easily be defined as a ‘provincial coffin’ and I came of age during the Britpop years: not a very lucky girl. Discovering ‘older’ music and 1950s/60s icons (mainly through Pulp and Belle and Sebastian) helped me form my identity and gave a feeling of ‘belonging’ and a sense of direction.  What did the 80s independent scene mean to you? How did you connect with other music fans?

When I look back at the 80's it seems almost in slow motion. The path to anything of worth was an arduous task of putting the puzzle pieces together, often failing and starting over again. The indie music scenes and fashions were something I lived and breathed quite organically after years of feeling detached from reality. When I was fifteen I ran into an old friend from junior school at a local gig in Southend by some awful turgid mod revival band, we were both wearing the same Cramps t-shirts and instantly became inseparable after a five year absence. It was cool to find someone to talk to other than myself.

  The Pastels (with Strawberry Switchblade) , Glasgow, 1982. Photo by Peter McArthur.

The Pastels (with Strawberry Switchblade) , Glasgow, 1982. Photo by Peter McArthur.

Where did you shop at the time? What was your most treasured item of clothing? Any particular fashion icon?

I lived in charity shops, jumble sales rummaging for 60s treasures and scoured old man type shops for unworn 60's stock which back then was highly feasible as it was less than twenty years before. I developed a vast wardrobe of clothes for pennies, not all of it fitted perfectly soi'd attempt to alter things by hand sewing method often ending in disaster. I cultivated a long haired tramp like mod image. My most treasured item was a pair of brown suede Chelsea boots made by Denson shoes from the mid 60's I excavated from the local Army and Navy surplus store, carried all manner of bizarre old stock, mostly horrendous, but occasionally sublime. Style icon wise, I remember thinking Tony and Kim from the Scientists looked really cool around the Blood Red River phase, all long bowl haircuts, paisley shirts, skinny black jeans and pointy Chelsea boots. Their gigs were mind numbingly brilliant outings into repetitive fuzz dirge. I sorta think they were a big influence on some of the embryonic UK bands i.e. Spacemen 3 and MBV.

Music and fashion have always gone hand in hand, right from the very beginning. Why did you pick the 1980-1988 independent scene? Just personal reasons?

This era was my youth and I witnessed most of these bands live and experienced all of the youth fashion nuances as they morphed into one another first hand. It seemed like a subject I could approach with some genuine nous and compassion, also for some reason it had remained uncharted written territory. Which for a vastly fascinating chapter in UK youth fashion music history is an absolute crime of omission.The kids will have their say (SSD).

  My Bloody Valentine. Photo by Ken Copsey.

My Bloody Valentine. Photo by Ken Copsey.

 I started following your blog, Leaders of Men, a while ago. How did the idea of the book come about? 

The blog was where i started gradually laying the books 60's/80's foundations down. I'd been planning A Scene In Between in my head for a couple of years before that at least. You could say I'm quite slow at getting my shit together.

I like what you say in your introduction – ‘It was fairly standard practice to sell for example, a Primal Scream or Pastels single, along with a Love or 13th Floor Elevator reissue LP and a Ramones or X Ray-Spex album all in the same transaction’. Do you think it was this diversity that made the music ‘scene’ so interesting, something worth revisiting?

For sure, Ii feel in many ways it was the last wave of the New Wave before the whole E thing came barging in lobotomising the youth into a sterile conformity. Caroline Coon mentions that somewhere in her book (1988) that punk rock tremors will be felt as far away as '88, her premonition was bang on. For a brief period between '84 - '87 all this rich sonic tapestry to feed from became the same thing. 60's folk rock and garage + 70's DIY punk and new wave = 80's indie fuzz jangle!

The photographs in the book really interesting because girls feature so heavily in them. Laddish attitudes tend to spoil any music scene for me (one of the reasons why Britpop never really convinced me).  Do you think the higher proportion of female musicians influenced the fashion and/or attitudes at the time?

  Gina Davidson (Marine Girls), 1981. Photo by Paul Rosen.

Gina Davidson (Marine Girls), 1981. Photo by Paul Rosen.

The indie scenes then were a safe poetic haven away from the laddish majority. Girls were as involved in the scenes as much as boys and there was no macho bravado. All that crap started seeping back in with grunge and the return to rockism just like punk had never happened and it was 1972 all over again. Yuk.

And finally…..a perhaps obvious question. What happened to music sub-cultures and micro-scenes?  Has independent music lost some of its power or have things simply become more fragmented?

Sorry Erika I'm so out of the loop these days I can't really answer this one. I'm a genuine relic.

  The Shop Assistants, 1985. Photo by Mark Flunder.

The Shop Assistants, 1985. Photo by Mark Flunder.

All photos courtesy of Sam Knee. His book, A Scene In Between: Tripping Through the Fashions of UK Indie Music, will be published in October by Cicada Books. A launch event will take place in Rough Trade East (London) on Thursday 03 October, featuring a DJ set by Stephen Pastel and a Q&A session with Sam, Stephen, Gina Davidson (Marine Girls) and Phil King (Felt). Mono (Glasgow) will host the Scottish launch on 07 October. 

Features: Roman Polanski's 'The Tenant'

Unpopular on release in 1976, Roman Polanski's The Tenant is the final film in his 'Apartment Trilogy', explorations of madness fostered in enclosed spaces. As Erika Sella finds out, claustrophobia isn't just caused by bricks and mortar - outside forces have their part to play too...

Polanski is not an easy figure to deal with nowadays. It is sometimes hard to separate art from the artist, and the awareness of certain events in the director's life can make some viewers very uneasy with his work. I am of course horrified at what the Polish/French director allegedly did, and I think abuse is inexcusable in all circumstances. However, I am also aware that I love music and cinema made by people who often acted in questionable ways (hello Phil Spector, Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen).

So, when I discovered Edinburgh’s Filmhouse were going to host a Polanski retrospective, I was simply overcome with cinephile's excitement. Whilst I enjoyed the 'usual suspects' (Chinatown, Knife In The Water, Rosemary’s Baby) I was particularly happy I could finally unearth relatively undiscovered gems such as Fearless Vampire Killers (AKA Dance of the Vampires) and The Tenant.

   Image Copyright: Paramount Home Entertainment  


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 Image Copyright: Paramount Home Entertainment

The latter wasn't well received at the time of its release. One critic, Leslie Halliwell (of Film Guide fame) went as far as describing it as ‘the total dissipation of whatever talent [Polanski] once had’. I was intrigued by such responses, and also by a plot that reminded me of both Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby. All three films are about a character who is unable to relate to other and slowly loses the plot. It's no coincidence that they're known as the Apartment Trilogy – they’re all largely filmed in the threatening, and sometimes claustrophobic surroundings of the protagonist's home.

The Tenant stars Roman Polanski himself - he plays a meek and somewhat inscrutable Polish immigrant, Trelkovsky , who rents a flat in Paris after learning that the previous occupier, a girl named Simone Choule, has tried to kill herself by jumping out of a window. Trelkovsky is clearly an outsider right from the start, when we see him meet the inexplicably nasty concierge for the first time. He doesn’t have an overly strong personality (his first self –assessment is "I don’t like being a nuisance"), and he is also a foreigner. This is picked up on time and time again, both by his landlord and by the police superintendent; his identity card (Trelkovsky has French citizenship) is handled by the latter with disdain ("It’s in very poor state").

Even the title of the film itself implies a transient, insecure and fragile state, subject to the will of others: as Trelkovsky is reminded by his landlord "You’ll do as you please when you have your own house". The apartment is very important to the whole film: as with Repulsion, it becomes a reflection of the protagonist’s state of mind. It is a space that is for the most part constricting and uninviting – black, maroon and dark green hues are predominant; it is also a space where everyday objects and surroundings (a lamp, some chipped paint) can take on a dark, grim meaning. In both films, nothing is overtly horrible (at least initially): the cracks in the wall, the dingy little bedrooms and the possessions left by the previous tenant are commonplace if a little unpleasant to witness. Gradually they become more menacing, and just as they seem to, Trelkovsky abandons his attempts to please and fit in and starts to express his inner turmoil. Repulsion did something very similar, and perhaps to an even greater effect: just as Carole slips into madness, the everyday objects that surround her go quite literally nasty (potatoes sprout, a skinned rabbit rots away in the kitchen). The hands protruding from the wall are a violent threat as Carole is the unwilling object of the desire; the hands outside the window in The Tenant are equally aggressive, trying to invade the protagonist’s personal space, attempting to injure or even kill him.

  Image   Copyright: Paramount Home Entertainment

Image Copyright: Paramount Home Entertainment

Trelkovsky decides to have a flat-warming party with a few of his colleagues. When the gathering gets just a little too loud, the protagonist gets a scolding from his upstairs neighbour. It’s the start of something that borders on psychological torture - the other residents constantly complain to him over incredibly trivial things, making his life a misery. Polanski's pessimistic view of what society can be is in full show here: the meek shan't inherit the earth. 

This belief become blatantly obvious when Trelkovsky refuses to sign a petition against another dweller because he is not bothered by her presence in the building (he has never met her). His response is met at first with disbelief and then with threatening words: "You will regret your decision". Trelkovsky is powerless against his surroundings, even if it's clear he means well. He is weak, isolated, he can't fit in, and it's impossible for him to go against the grain.

The protagonist feels suffocated, helpless, and starts thinking that the whole building his conspiring against him. As viewers, we are inclined to sympathise with his persona, but are not relying solely on his narration: we are therefore unsure of where 'reality ' finishes and where his descent into madness (his hallucinations) start. One can't help thinking of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby - are her neighbours and husband really plotting something against her and her child, or is she imagining everything? Trelkovsky’s identity, already somewhat delicate, starts to disintegrate and merge into something else: without giving too much away, we'll just say that the protagonist literally steps into someone else's shoes, and takes on someone else's role. This will lead to predictably dramatic consequences. Polanski doesn't miss a trick and films Trelkovsky.'s demise in a spectacular manner which adds one last, extremely gloomy chapter to the protagonist’s life. His persona (or ‘real self’ if such thing exists) totally shattered, he plays out one last performance. He is now a puppet, whose terrifying final dance is 

  Image Copyright: Paramount Home Entertainment

Image Copyright: Paramount Home Entertainment

The Tenant is not an easy watch: its density means that repeated viewings will probably spur fresh interpretations. It’s a largely allegorical film, and we are left with the feeling that what we're watching is not about the fairly straightforward story that is being told on screen.

Moreover, it seems to remind us of something a certain French philosopher once said: "L’enfer, c’est les autres".

Interview: Lenzie Moss

Lenzie Moss (AKA Glasgow based singer, songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist Finlay Macdonald) took the time to speak to Andrew R. Hill about the creation of his marvellous debut album (under this alias), his songwriting process and the future.

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