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.
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.
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
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".