Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Tenant (1976)

by on June 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue June 28 at 6:00, 9:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


Inevitable spoilers ahead! Proceed with caution.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Roman Polanski’s 1976 English-language, Paris-set creepfest was adapted from a novel by the French graphic artist Topor, but it may be the director’s quintessential movie. It’s an exercise in urban paranoia and mental disintegration that echoes or anticipates everything from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby to Bitter Moon and The Pianist. Indeed, the movie is a true psychodrama: Polanski himself plays the eponymous protagonist, a furtive Polish-born Frenchman named Trelkovsky who rents the apartment of a recent suicide and is gradually driven mad by his mysteriously hostile neighbors.


Understated, at least at the beginning, The Tenant is also unrelenting as the hapless Trelkovsky is flummoxed or humiliated by one unsettling interaction after another. (The stellar international cast includes Isabelle Adjani, Shelley Winters, and Melvyn Douglas.) Naturally, The Tenant is a comedy—inspired, perhaps, by the joke that Trelkovsky is nowhere at home (least of all in his own skin) or by the Kafka wisecrack “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”



Jake Euker for Pop Matters:

The Tenant is Polanski at his funniest, and its humor is premised on its excess. You can think of it as a staring contest where your opponent is dressed in wild drag, sneaking distracting glances at the human teeth embedded in the walls. In The Tenant, Polanski invites you to dwell on the absurdity of situations and appearances, and his straight-faced demeanor in doing so becomes part of the joke: you laugh at its gall, inappropriateness, and self-parody. When Trelkovsky purchases his wig, he buys the first one he sees, and creates considerable discomfort for the help by trying it on in the store. He uses binoculars to spy on the toilet, located down the hall, again and again. He goes out in public, dressed as himself, but still wearing a little forgotten lipstick.


Polanski at his funniest is also Polanski at his creepiest, and The Tenant is as rich in scary moments as it is in laughs, often simultaneously. The horror is macabre, and provided in clearly observed bursts. (This is surely Polanski’s style; in Repulsion [1965], stretches of quotidian activity are punctuated by a glimpse of a phantom man in a mirror or the sudden, startling appearance of fissures in the walls.) In one discomfiting scene, Trelkovsky goes to the toilet and discovers himself, in his apartment, watching with binoculars.


Everything about The Tenant is too much, not just a little, but way too much. We often treasure excess, as in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), Macbeth stands, teeth clenched, with arrows bristling from him. When Godard pans interminably across a traffic jam in Week End (1967), or when his protagonists reenact the death of Jesse James in Band of Outsiders (1964), his radical experiments seem beyond “good sense.” Even David Fincher’s The Game (1997) exhibits this excessiveness, when the “game” goes on so long and becomes so elaborate that it’s riding on ether.


And it is in the company of these terrific, one-of-a-kind films, not among the failed efforts, that The Tenant belongs. Its madness informs its sublime balance between the ridiculous and the terrifying. This madness is born of Polanski’s pain, no doubt, and it’s a madness that forges ahead.


Penelope Gilliatt for The New Yorker :

The Tenant is no piece of whimsey about drag. It is a serious, exact film about the ache of exile. Exile from country. Exile from gender. Exile from the person whom others recognize as the self but whom the self, at times of extreme self-questioning or torment, can find quite foreign. It is a study of a man who, though small, feels he is a nuisance even to furniture. An occasional table, to his way of thinking, deserves courtesy and maneuver. He feels he is even more of an obstruction in the presence of people, and seems apologetic for his short unfurnished tenancy on his life…


The Tenant has quite left behind the ethic of cool and the intent to shock which Polanski seemed to hanker after in his last few movies. It goes back to the days of Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac. Trelkovsky is very Slav. There is a subtext of powerful humor and longing under every scene of the hero’s, however much the film seems superficially to be a horror-thriller. It is a record of the sensibility of a man’s tenancy of himself: a man about to be evicted, tinkling the bead curtains for a view of enemy officials, never sure that he is the certified leaseholder of the body he occupies. As in Dostoevski, and in Kafka, imaginary fears are matched uncannily by real forces. Bureaucracy enters with a warrant; the accused person admits to the required crime. The Tenant is a poetic nightmare about punishment imposed on an unguilty man who merely entertained great fear of guilt.



Jonathan McCalmont with some interesting analysis, and background on the source text, for Ruthless Culture:

One of the more accessible (and indeed interesting) works to come out of the Panic Movement is Roland Topor’s Le Locataire Chimerique (1964), better known in English as The Tenant.  Topor’s novel tells the story of a mild-mannered and discrete man who moves into a new apartment following the suicide of its previous tenant.  Initially pleased with his new digs, the tenant soon becomes incredibly anxious about the noise complaints he receives from his neighbours.  A social gathering nearly provokes his upstairs neighbour to violence while even moving a piece of furniture is enough to illicit a symphony of wall-banging from neighbours on all sides.  Consumed by guilt and fear of being thrown into the street, the tenant cuts himself off from friends and starts to descend into a state of complete paranoia about how he is perceived by fellow tenants.  This paranoia rapidly spirals out of control and the tenant descends into madness as his identity and that of the previous tenant start to bleed into one another, resulting in hallucinations and fantasies that become increasingly bizarre and grotesque until the book reaches a final and bloody denouement.


By preserving the whimsical elements of the original novel, Polanski not only continues to show the influence of Surrealism upon his work, he also taps into one of the most enduring motifs of European art, namely that the only sane reaction to the kind of death and misery caused by World War is to laugh.  If Surrealism is whimsical, it is because it is a reaction to the events of the First World War.  The same instinct can be seen in the French reaction to the death and collaboration that went on during the Second World War, namely the recognition via Camus that human concerns are ultimately absurd.  The Tenant does not mourn Trelkovsky’s descent into madness, it looks on and acknowledges how silly it all is.  This whimsical tone is completely at odds with the dark and haunting imagery of Repulsion and the dream-like Horror and injustice of Rosemary’s Baby.


The film itself expresses the same split personality as its hero. The Tenant was a US/French co-production, also known as La locataire, and it appears to have been shot roughly half in English, half in French – at any rate, the actors who do not speak English fluently have clearly been dubbed. I suppose the opposite is true in the French cut. There is no historic indication which is the “authoritative” version. Certainly, it’s European-ness seems to outweigh it’s American-ness, but that is a wholly subjective sort of argument to make.


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

The film’s nihilist point is clear: It’s the world against Trelkovsky and not the other way around. There’s an overwhelming sense here that the world is a stage and the people in Trelkovsky’s immediate realm are in constant performance mode. Because everyone in the film seems to exist solely for his benefit, it’s sometimes easy to brush Trelkovsky off as an egomaniacal loser. (Imagine a more uptempo remake of the film with Tom Cruise in the lead.) The film’s actors stand in center frame, staring not only at Trelkovsky but at the spectator as well. They pass judgement, whisper mischievously, and spread their idle gossip. This is the power of Polanski’s image—to so chillingly summon the self-consciousness and fear of the individual and the pervasive gaze of threatening others.



Polanski in interview, from the Paul Cronin anthology:

Q: In your two films that are set in Paris-The Tenant and Frantic-the image you give of the city is, to say the least, hostile.
A: Let’s just say I’ve felt some hostility around me in Paris. Not today but certainly in the 1950’s when I lived there. The Tenant was based Roland Topor’s novel, though the hostility in the story was exaggerated through the main character’s paranoia. We don’t know if the tension around him is real or imagined. […]


Q: What inspired you to play the lead in The Tenant?
A: At that point I was working with Paramount and they had the rights to the Roland Topor novel. I thought it would be a good role for me. As a matter of fact, I found it more interesting to play the part than to direct the film. I find this with a lot of scripts, and it’s actually rare that both things appeal to me at the same time. You shouldn’t forget that I started as an actor and only became a director later.


Q: You’re one of those rare filmmakers who have moved back and forth between Europe and Hollywood.
A: I like London and Paris too much to be able to detach myself totally from them. I packed my bags but still kept my house there. London in the 1970’s, Paris in the 1980’s-these were the two places I repeatedly left but to where I would always return. You can see it in the films I’ve made. After Chinatown I needed to make a more European film and wanted to be in France, and also do some acting, so I made The Tenant in Paris.


Q: You took what you call your “irony” to Hollywood. But what did you bring back to Europe?
A: I brought back a certain way of looking at things which evokes a sense of displacement. In The Tenant, for example, Paris looks like an exotic city-the Paris of a foreigner.


Q: You seem to be making less disturbing films these days.
A: I don’t really think I’ve made any disturbing films. Which of my films do you think are disturbing? Perhaps The Tenant.


Aaron Smuts for Kinoeye:

The final scenes make Trelkovsky’s break from madness more pronounced and changes in perspective help to clearly indicate what he sees versus what is actually present. The initial assumptions of conspiracy are so difficult to break, partly due to the extreme oddness of the building’s occupants and the earlier finding of a human tooth inexplicably embedded in a wall, that the last scenes, especially the dream-mummy sequence, may seem utterly inconsistent. However, the film can be viewed as a mostly consistent exploration of provoked paranoia, and tends to offer more support for this interpretation when watched with the foreknowledge of Trelkovsky’s coming insanity.


The viewing experience is much less enjoyable from a critical distance, as the film’s effectiveness relies almost entirely on the audience to be as suspicious and susceptible as Trelkovsky. However, Le Locataire remains powerful because it does not rely solely on either narratorial or audience unreliability. In order to completely discount the conspiratorial evidence, especially the neighbor’s bathroom behaviors, the viewer would be required to reject the implicit pact of narratorial honesty developed in the later segments. The ambiguity and slight inconsistencies allow Polanski to artfully manipulate audience sympathy in a wonderfully disturbing film that offers new takes at every viewing.



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