The Tenant July 23, 2016
Isolation and paranoia-induced madness are a deadly combination, and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, released in 1976, is an unnerving horror show of a similar caliber to The Shining, or even, if I’m so inclined to be comparative, Polanski’s own Repulsion. Casting himself as the film’s protagonist, mild-mannered office drone Trelkovksy, Polanski establishes the film’s claustrophobic anxieties through a disturbing mixture of his own directorial and writing idiosyncrasies, solidifying the movie’s fears through a performance that borderlines on the unhinged.
The closing statement of his supposed “Apartment Trilogy,” predated by the aforementioned Repulsion and the iconic Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant is perhaps the most overlooked of the trio, maybe because its fame is more cultish (it was poorly received upon release, Roger Ebert most notably labeling it as an “embarrassment”) or maybe because its power relies more on the decomposing of the viewer’s assurance and less on literal, touchable terror.
Blurring the lines between reality, delusion, and the supernatural, The Tenant is never an easy watch — it can be marginally frustrating in its indecisiveness on what type of horror movie it would like to be — but it’s a fascinating one, expert in substantiating an overwhelming feeling of dread and bravura in the way it never attests an escape from its spiteful, broodingly maleficent ways.
It finds its setting in the Parisian apartment shortage of the 1970s, fueling the fires of the feeling of unwelcome Polanski so masterfully perpetuates. His Trelkovsky, so shy and so willing to be pushed around, settles on a building that seems to be mysteriously alive in and of itself, populated by devilish beings and not regular, pavement pounding people. The apartment he’s planning to inhabit is vacant by luck too awful to feel good about: its previous resident, an Egyptologist named Simone, threw herself from her balcony in an attempt to off herself. Somehow, she lived. But when Trelkovsky visits her in her uninviting hospital room, covered head to toe in bandages, she lets out a distressing scream and promptly dies.
The image of Simone’s troublesome end leaves Trelkovksy understandably uneasy, but without many other housing options to turn to, he moves into her flat anyway, hoping to resume an uneventful life that was once marred by homelessness.
But after just a few days of living in the complex, Trelkovsky might as well wish that house-hunting were a part of his life once more. Other tenants in the building feverishly complain of his apparently booming noisemaking, which, aside from a high volume get-together in his room one night, is next to nothing. Their hate is so venomous that it begins having a profound effect on his mental state: after multiple occasions that find his neighbors unreasonably berating him, he becomes convinced that they’re forcefully pushing him toward the same fate as Simone.
The Tenant’s descent into madness is an excruciating one, mostly because much of its agonies derive from the demons battling within Trelkovsky’s own psyche. Though his fellow apartment dwellers are really just conniving assholes who figure that even breathing is much too loud of an action and little else, the ominous hallucinations he has regarding them (he frequently sees various neighbors hatefully staring at him from across the way in the quietest hours of the night; he envisions them playing football with a severed head) are all the more frightening because they exist solely within his twisted mind. Whether there actually is an evil presence turning him into a maniac in the building is unclear (and mostly doubtable). But in any case, watching a person’s sanity slip away is spine-chilling, and The Tenant knows how to push our buttons.
Polanski’s leading performance is pitch-perfect — his underwhelming star caliber nicely suits the detached anonymity expected of Trelkovsky — but his screenplay (co-written with Gérard Brach and adapted from Roland Topor’s novel of the same name), which is enigmatically threatening and acutely cryptic, and his direction, which is punishingly dark and always seeming to be hiding vital information, are even better. And the supporting performances from Shelley Winters (as the vicious concierge), Melvyn Douglas (as the sensitive but mean-spirited landlord), Jo Van Fleet (as the heinously passive aggressive Madame Dioz), and especially Isabelle Adjani (as kooky love interest Stella), complement the dextrous balance between the menace and actual harm Polanski’s fearsomely conjures.
With its blackly humorous yet totally creepy kicker of a conclusion, The Tenant is an exercise in paranoia that serves as one of Polanski’s most eerie (and strangest) endeavors. Not the embarrassment Ebert proclaimed it to be, it latches onto you like a parasite, eating away at you for the answers to its many mysteries. Those answers, much as we’d like them to, never come. B+