Review: Tenant

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
Macbeth

In The Tenant Roman Polanski explores again the psychic terrain of guilt, dread, paranoia, fears of sexual inadequacy and hysteria he made so familiar in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown. Much of The Tenant bears residual traces of Repulsion‘s treatment of insanity and the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary’s Baby. The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering. A bit of lace drifting in the breeze becomes an omen of dread; sidelong glances from normal faces acquire an insidious grotesqueness. Is there in fact a conspiracy against M. Trelkovsky (Tchaikovsky? Porchovsky?—everyone seems to pronounce it differently), the new young tenant who takes over the apartment of Mlle. Schoul, the victim of a suicide leap from her window? Are the other tenants in league to drive T. into jumping as well? What about the burglary of his apartment? The human tooth he finds hidden in a hole in the wall plugged by cotton? The Egyptian postcard? The hieroglyphics in the toilet? Are they all elements of a vast conspiracy to drive him mad?

It’s fair to reveal that in this film there is no conspiracy afoot, because the meaning of the film doesn’t hinge on that revelation. Unlike Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, where the point is to document the reality of conspiracy, the point of The Tenant is to illustrate how an unstable mind foments paranoia and creates imaginary persecution. T. believes that his neighbors have designed to turn him into another Simone Schoul, and the disintegration of his personality is signified by his adoption of her habits. He begins to drink chocolate instead of coffee, smoke her brand of cigarettes, and even to move in her old circle of friends. Eventually, after having dabbled with some makeup of Mlle. Sehoul’s which he finds in the apartment, T. dons an old dress from the wardrobe and a bright red wig he buys him self. He begins to spend his evenings sitting rigidly before the window with binoculars obsessively watching the other tenants in the toilet across the courtyard. (The Tenant is specifically reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window here; in other places it reminds us of Vertigo and Psycho.) Whether there is a plot or not becomes of secondary importance. Polanski’s strategy is to illustrate that the terrors hallucinated by the mind are every bit as powerful and destructive as the terrors of a so-called real world.

Much of this is, again, familiar territory for Polanski, although the confusion of sexual roles is more pronounced here than anywhere else in his work. The slightly decadent and fetishistic, but innocent, bedtime games of Cul-de-sac have developed into the signs of a basic confusion concerning sexual identity. T.’s acquisition of feminine costume and habits speaks to a repressed and disturbing need. He is not attracted to women, in fact cannot perform sexually when Stella (Isabelle Adjani) takes him home. In this respect he is again the counterpart of Simone Schoul who, he is told, was never interested at all in men. As he is drawn more completely into the idea of becoming this woman, T. pauses to speculate about what defines him. If a man loses an arm, he wonders, does the arm or the remaining body define his selfhood? How much can a man lose, change, or give away and still remain “himself”? Or, to paraphrase the advertisers, does the cigarette make the man?

The element completely new in this film, which raises interesting problems, is Polanski’s personal relationship to the project. Like Bergman’s Face to Face, The Tenant feels like a film contrived to work out a special psychological project, to exorcise a particular ghost. Can we ignore the fact that the character T., who is Polish and troubled about problems of violence, obsessiveness, dread and guilt, is played by Polanski himself, whose films have consistently dealt with those subjects? To what extent ought we use knowledge external to the film to discuss its implications?

While it would be unwise to assert an incident-by-incident likeness between the lives of T. and Polanski, I think we can still suggest an identity between them. They share, to the extent that a real person can share something with a relatively two-dimensional figure of art, many of the same fears. T. is a theoretical alter self to Polanski, the man he “might have been” or “could be” under certain circumstances. In some ways they are exactly alike: how they walk, speak, look. Quite literally in this instance, Polanski is becoming his own films as T. becomes Simone Schoul. I can almost hear Polanski asking himself, “If a man makes a film, /how much of his identity is in that film? How many films must he make before his reality lies there and not in his mind?”

In this sense, The Tenant marks a departure for Polanski. By inviting the examination of the film in the way he does, and by dramatizing his interior life in the film product itself, Polanski aligns himself with a very specific screen tradition whose most notorious exponent is Bergman. I think it is significant that Polanski’s cinematographer on the project was Sven Nykvist, one of Bergman’s regular collaborators. Though never literally in front of the camera (save for a couple jokey bits), Bergman is always giving us a tour of his “interior studios” and Nykvist’s camera is always more than ready to oblige.

The problem with being this kind of personal, subjective director is that one must walk a fine line. He can create a personal vision, but he must also communicate it coherently by means of objective structures. The personal experience must never engulf its form, though the personal artist works where form is most fragile and experimental. Being a personal director, as they would tell us themselves, is a little like chasing waves on the seashore: one has to be wary of getting swamped.

In spite of the one-man-show quality of the film, with Polanski obsessively at the center of all scenes, it retains a remarkable degree of distance. The Gothic machinery prevents it from being too unbearably personal, and the film has an eerie beauty of its own that is often hard to account for. And there is a good deal of very funny material: T. spilling garbage down the immaculate stairway, the masher watching T. and Stella grope each other in the theater. There is, as well, some material that is funny in a purely existential (that is, grim) way: T.’s response to the funeral sermon, or finding so unlikely a thing as a tooth in so unlikely a place as a hole in the wall behind the wardrobe.

The only troubling aspect of this film is the abundance of self-parody characteristic of so much of Polanski’s work. One finds it hard to separate the unintentional cliché from· the intentional; I find it hard to locate a consistent body of beliefs and attitudes immune to the parody. At base, the film is cold and it reveals a troubled vision at the heart of Polanski’s work—a vision of a world of self-hatred and dread, a world in which there is no grace for anybody.

THE TENANT
Direction: Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Polanski and Gérard Brach, after a book by Roland Topor. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Art direction: Pierre Guffroy. Editing: Françoise Bonnot. Music: Philippe Sarde.
The players: Roman Polanski, Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters, Isabelle Adjani, Jo Van Fleet, Lila Kedrova, Bernard Fresson, Rufus, Claude Dauphin.

© 1976 Norman Hale

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.