Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy at MoMA (Sep 10-25)

by on September 9, 2011Posted in: Essay


THE WALLS are always closing in and the neighbors conspiring against you in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, a set of landmark art films suffused with the brashness of B-horror. Each film in the series—Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976)—is a tense study in unraveling consciousness, an unflinching look at its protagonist’s progressive alienation and total withdrawal from society.


Polanski self-consciously pushes these stories toward the abstract and the allegorical. In spite or, perhaps, because of this, all three movies invite readings related to Polanski’s biography. Beyond suggesting general themes and psychological conditions–the trilogy comprises three persecution fantasies made by a Holocaust survivor–each film seems at times to not only refer to but presage specific events in Polanski’s life.


In Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow comes to believe her husband and neighbors are a coven of witches out to sacrifice her unborn baby to Satan. A year after Baby was released, the Manson Family murdered Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate; asked what they had come for, Manson follower Charles Watson is reported to have answered, “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business.” The next day, the Family murdered a wholesale grocer named Leno LaBianca, along with his wife, Rosemary.


Rape–the inciting incident in Rosemary’s Baby, and the subtext of a key sequence in The Tenant (below)–is a theme that pervades Repulsion, which ends with suggestions of violent pedophilia. When Polanski was later tried for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old Vogue model in a hot tub, the repeated scenes of sexual violation from his oeuvre were used as evidence by the assistant D.A. (who went so far as to notice the proximity of several to bodies of water).


Catherine Denueve in Repulsion (1965)

REPULSION CONCERNS CAROLE (Catherine Deneuve), a Belgian woman living and working in London as a manicurist at an upscale, unplacaebly strange beauty boutique. When not drifting through work like a zombified runway model, Carole spends most of her time slinking around her Kensington flat, shooting daggers at her sister Helen’s boyfriend, and just generally tripping over the phallophobic phantasmagoria of her increasingly insane hallucinations.


When her sister goes on vacation to Italy, Carole and the film itself quickly spiral ever deeper into psychosis. Long before the first pair of arms have sprouted out of the wall to molest her, the panicked and deeply confused Carole has committed an act of murder.


The Polanski of Repulsion owes a good deal to the Antonioni of the first half of the Sixties. Both directors emphasize the physical spaces between people and things, isolating characters from each other and their environment. Even when conversing, people tend to avoid eye contact; the protagonist is often brought to the front of the frame, with the character they’re talking to lingering in the background, trying in vain to forge a connection.


Top row: Monica Vitti and Francisco Rabal in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962)
Bottom row: Deneuve and John Fraser in


We see glimpses of London in Repulsion, but indistinctly. Unlike Antonioni, Polanski doesn’t do much with cityscape here, instead focusing on interiors. The film manages to conjure a deeply unsettling atmosphere in Carole’s apartment through minimal variations in lighting, framing and lensing (which are complimented by outrageously maximal sound cues).


Repulsion lingers not just in Carole’s apartment but, importantly, at her workplace too, where Carole is obviously disgusted by the bodies of the wealthy women she serves. By focusing on her alienated labor, Repulsion makes us very aware of Carole’s status as an immigrant. Her urban nausea is less posh than any of Antonioni character’s, and far more brutal. It’s also more distinctly gender dysphoric.


The movie suggests several explanations for Carole’s gender trouble: in addition to early experiences with sexual abuse, the movie gestures at a severely repressed homosexuality. You could plausibly infer that Carole’s obsession with rape is a natural byproduct of living under patriarchal domination; her paranoia comes to seem perfectly apposite when, at the film’s climax, someone tries to rape her.


But Carole can also, at times, seem like little more than a projection of male insecurities: the worst fears of the shy suitor materialized. In addition, there’s an undeniably leering quality to the film, and more than a little sadism involved; we often sense that Carole’s suffering because, well, Polanski enjoys it.


Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)


SIMILAR AMBIVALENCES run through Rosemary’s Baby, which tells the story of a woman whose husband and neighbors are conspiring against her–or are they?


On the one hand, it’s possible to see Baby as a feminist tract: a portrait of a woman whose husband isolates and brainwashes her in order to conscript her body; a woman who, when she seeks outside help, is patronized by male authority figures who do nothing but return her to her abusers. Baby, in fact, has striking similarities with one particular piece of feminist literature, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallaper.”


Written in 1892, “Wallaper” is narrated by a woman who is ill and depressed and sequestered in a room with decorations that appear to be taunting her. The woman’s husband and caretakers won’t let her socialize and, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of her complaints, are that which is causing her pain. The passages with her husband read like scenes out of Baby, in which male figures also dismiss the heroine’s suffering:

You see he does not believe I am sick!


And what can one do?


If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency– what is one to do?


When her husband John insists, “Really dear you are better!” Perkins’ unnamed narrator begins to protest, “Better in body perhaps–” but then “stop[s] short, for John sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.”



But while female powerlessness is in “The Yellow Paper” pure tragedy, in Baby there’s something kinky about it. Farrow’s Rosemary always finds herself bearing skin: taking off her thigh-highs while experiencing early inklings of fear or having her dress ride up on her as she’s being attacked. In the movie’s most, er, indelicate touch, the viewer is offered both a perfectly composed tits shot and a perfectly composed ass shot while Rosemary’s being raped by the devil.


Even as the movie’s approach to its vulnerable heroine is a cause for discomfort, Rosemary’s vulnerability is, simultaneously, what’s most affecting about Baby. Rosemary is very clearly a descendent of the heroine in Gaslight, a character brought to the screen first by Diana Wynyard in 1940 and then, more famously, by Ingrid Bergman in George Cukor’s 1944 adaptation.


In Gaslight, Paula Anton (called Bella Mallon in the first movie) marries a man who, to try to distract her from his plot to steal jewels he believes are hidden in her house, gradually—very gradually—erodes her grip on reality by forcefully contradicting little things she says. What’s terrifying about the story is Paula’s complicity in her own unmooring; she knows what’s going on, but can’t admit it.



Rosemary’s even scarier in this regard, because more psychologically plausible; she wavers more, testing out theories, following up on suspicions, then convincing herself to shut it all out. Pale and emaciated and frenziedly distrait, Farrow gives one of the most devastating portraits of cognitive dissonance ever committed to film.


This story of the inability to confront an encroaching terror for the very reason that its too overwhelmingly terrifying is haunted by Polanski’s childhood. And the director makes explicit his larger concern about the state of the world post-WWII: the concept of God has become untenable, but the problem of evil persists.


“God is dead,” scream the film’s witches, “long live Satan!” Just in case you missed it.


Polanski himself stars as The Tenant (1976)


THE LAST FILM of the Apartment Trilogy, full of whispering conspirators and looming mobs, evokes Polanski’s experience of Nazism even more than Baby, and not least because Polanski himself plays the lead.


In The Tenant, a middle-aged nebbish named Trelkovsky (Polanski) moves into an apartment where the neighbors behave in increasingly bizarre and hostile ways, driving him first to manic lunacy and then to self-harm. Unlike Baby, which draws on the supernatural, it’s only little things in The Tenant that throw reality off-kilter: the neighbors are cold; they lodge noise complaints, repeatedly; a waiter brings Trelkovsky the wrong order, repeatedly; there develops a mere accretion of subtly off-color remarks that become unbearable and oppressive.


There’s a very brief episode about 25 minutes into The Tenant that’s peculiarly resonant in light of the director’s arrest for sexual assault less than a year after the film’s release.


Trelkovsky, in only an initial stage of his freak-out, goes to Mass. After entering the Church, he lingers, nervously, by the door, surveying the proceedings, and then tentatively takes his seat. A few pews up there’s a young girl, about 13 years old, who turns around and begins to stare at him menacingly.


The girl’s mother soon redirects her attention to the sermon, and as she does so Trelkovsky’s gaze moves from the young girl to an older one, in her late teens or early twenties, positioned on the other side of the same bench.



Trelkovsky moves to a row right behind the young woman and nervously makes eye contact; she politely, if awkwardly, nods back, and at this Trelkovsky moves closer. He’s inching closer to her, eyeing her, closer, eyeing.


Then, suddenly, he’s struck by an image of Christ looming above him.



The crucified figure unsettles him. He breaks out in a sweat, starts fidgeting. A panic overtakes him and he rushes to the main doors, but they’re locked. He struggles to exasperation and eventually escapes through a smaller exit to the right.


Nearly everyone in the film is menacing to a greater or lesser degree, so the little girl’s demeanor is hardly surprising. The question is why that specific character is used to lead us into the theme of sexual anxiety, and why, with a POV pan, there’s a visual equivalence set up between her and the obvious object of desire, placed on the opposing end of the same bench.


Polanski, the artist, included this scene because, like Kafka, he knows that a persecution fantasy can be all the more unsettling when paired with a guilty conscience. One wonders why Polanski the man included it.


Tom McCormack is an Editor for Alt Screen.

Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy–Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976)—is playing at the Museum of Modern Art September 08-25. The screenings are part of the series “Roman Polanski,” a complete retrospective of the director’s works, September 07-30.

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