Le Locataire

(The Tenant, France/USA - 1976)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters, Jo Van Fleet, Bernard Fresson, Lila Kedrova
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gerard Brach & Roman Polanski based on Roland Topor's novel
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Composer: Philippe Sarde
Runtime: 125 minutes

"You know how it is. With the best will in the world and not dreaming of disturbing anyone you, uh, talk. You're having a good time… Before you even know it you're making so much noise that… I'm sorry. I can promise you it'll never happen again" - Trelkovsky

One of the best and most underrated cinematic trilogies is Roman Polanski's tales of apartment terror - Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, & The Tenant. Though found (if you are very lucky) in the horror section and made years before the Internet could possibly be the easy scapegoat, the trilogy represents some of the most useful celluloid on isolation.

Repulsion is the best of the three because Polanski had the clearest vision of what he was trying to accomplish and, being the first, the techniques he used to do so were fresh. Though the end result of Repulsion is the most difficult to predict, the thin line between conspiracy and delusion is the fuzziest, most tantalizing, and thankfully least resolved in Rosemary's Baby. For the aforementioned reasons as well as some horrendous dubbing of the French speaking actors, The Tenant is the worst. However, it's the most relevant because of the problems chosen for the main character, and the fact he doesn't have a sister like Carole in Repulsion or a husband like Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby to at least try to rely on.

Virtually every one of Polanski's films shows the scars of his childhood, where he escaped Nazi persecution by wandering the countryside and pretending to be something he wasn't (a catholic). Unfortunately, his parents were not so lucky, being taken to concentration camps where his mom died. Adding to his torment and disaffection, his second wife, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by Charles Manson and cult in 1969. Though Polanski has always found somewhere to go, even when facing statutory rape charges, in the nightmares of his cinema his representation usually isn't so lucky.

In the Tenant, that representation is played by none other than Roman Polanski. Two of the films key themes are racism and being the outsider, things Polanski has experienced quite a bit of spending his adult life outside his native Poland. Like Polanski, his character Trelkovsky is a Polish born French citizen. He simply tries to live in peace, but he may not even be granted that much.

The biggest reason the racism theme is effective is that it's barely addressed directly. We often feel it's presence, but it's hidden somewhere under the surface (ever before political correctness), identifiable just enough that we can't write off little things like the constant mispronunciations of his name, which is never played up or for comedy, to him just having a difficult surname. Aside from Trelkovsky, this conspiracy is given added credence by the one character in his apartment that's picked on, Madame Gaderian (Lila Kedrova), being a Russian woman, and the one outside the apartment being the weakling (someone says drinks for everyone then excludes him).

Each film establishes with a location shot detailing the area then generally confines you to interiors, which become more and more claustrophobic. The best of these establishing shots by far is in The Tenant, filmed by the great Sven Nykvist (most Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice). It's a great crane shot starting with a statuesque Trelkovsky peeking out a window half hidden by the curtain, and going up and down and all around the exteriors until it finds an opening. Like many scenes in the film, it's very surreal and left unexplained. When the camera revisits a window, Trelkovsky is replaced by a neighbor or vice versa, and in the end a set of doors open and Trelkovsky walks toward the camera (so this large opening the camera found should not be possible unless they don't bother closing off the main desk) and approaches the concierge about renting a room.

The setting of the atmospheric trilogy is quite ironic because at face value so many families in such little boxes should result in knowing your neighbors. From the moment Trelkovsky arrives at the apartment, he's met with various forms of disdain and indifference. Normally, the logical thing for Trelkovsky to do would simply be to move, but since he's a poor clerk working and living in Paris, where it's so difficult and time consuming to find a place that people who are only there a portion of the year would rather pay for the months they aren't than try to find a new place when they need it again, that's not the option it is in many places. The novel of Roland Topor, who acted in an even better horror with Isabelle Adjani, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, actually starts with Trelkovsky about to be thrown out onto the street when his friend Simon tells him about a vacant apartment.

What makes The Tenant so good is, like Rosemary's Baby, it devotes the majority of the running time to the development of the themes. Most of these scenes, in one way or another, show that the characters simply don't know how to interact with one another. There isn't a lot of character development in Tenant outside of Trelkovsky. Instead, his encounters show the varying reasons people don't connect. Stella (the wonderful and seemingly eternally beautiful Adjani) invites him to join her and her friends at a table, and at best he gets a few unenthusiastic "HI's". The concierge (Shelley Winters in one of her train wreck roles) acts like he's really putting her out by asking her to put her cleaning off for a few minutes and undergo the huge effort of showing him the room. Seeing a stranger at the door, Madame Zy (Florence Blot) snootily states "WE don't give to charity" and begins shutting it in his face. Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas) is too busy with what's left of his lunch to even look at Trelkovsky. Everyone will take his money, but it's practically like they are doing him the favor of tolerating him long enough to do so. In fact, the best scene is when he encounters a tramp posing as an artist (Alain Frerot). Figuring the guy is just expecting a few coins, Trelkovsky says he's only got notes and pulls them out of his wallet to prove he isn't lying. The beggar grabs one and walks off, but not before saying, "Come on, you don't want to look cheap in front of your girlfriend."

The role of the neighbors grows considerably throughout the trilogy from being an aside in Repulsion to replacing the old friends in Rosemary's Baby to keeping everyone away in The Tenant. Polanski doesn't see people as not having any friends, but rather the films show that you don't have to be a loner to be alone. Without something like school or work to bring you together, friends are only seen a few times a year when you invite them over for a party. In The Tenant, this party is what keeps them away because they are too noisy. Trelkovsky's friends want to counter attack, to get revenge on the person upstairs that complained, but much to their chagrin he kicks them out because the neighbors are the ones he has to try to coexist with every day.

One aspect The Tenant has over Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby is comedy. While they were pretty serious horrors outside of Rosemary's Baby having several good wise cracks by John Cassavetes, The Tenant is also one of Polanski's most successful black comedies. Much effect is derived from the absurdity of the scenario where all Trelkovsky wants to do is not bother anyone, yet everything Trelkovsky does is seen as an imposition. This ties in well with the paranoia, particularly when Trelkovsky's neighbors are so sure he's creating another disturbance that they wait to see him to complain, and it turns out the racket was his place being robbed. This intolerance of noise is a regular source of comedy, particularly because Melvyn Douglas takes a controlling character that could just be a sinister man lurking and makes him seem wise, clever, and not unreasonable. The most obnoxious character is actually Trelkovsky's friend Scope (Bernard Fresson), who is always doing things out of principle, except the people he's trying to get revenge on will never know it. For instance, he pisses in Trelkovsky's sink because the apartment owner only built one communal bathroom.

The humor is more generally derived from contrasting beliefs. The tenants feel that your only consideration should be to your neighbors, while Trelkovsky's friends feel it should only be to yourself. Madame Dioz (Jo Van Fleet) complains Madame Gaderian "has gone a little too far" because she "does her washing up in the middle of the night, and she whistles at the same time." On the other hand, to show Trelkovsky how to deal with his neighbors, Scope blasts marching music so loud Trelkovsky can't even enjoy it until he unearths poor Michel Blanc, who later directed Polanski in Grosse fatigue. Blanc politely asks if he could turn it down so as not to disturb his sick wife, only to get told off and eventually threatened by Scope. Trelkovsky is in the middle not because he believes that's the right way to be, but because he wants to mind his own business and avoid offending anyone. The middle traps him, alienating him from two uncompromising groups.

Trelkovsky's relationship with Stella is interesting because she is the only character that's not trying to tug him in one of those directions. Trelkovsky sometimes seems attracted to her, but he's much more in need of a friend, an ear. Sometimes you feel like he hangs around with her because she's the only one that's the least bit friendly or interested, but she often wants to be a bit too friendly for someone that, like Carole in Replusion though not to that extreme, retreats from sex. Unfortunately, Stella's character is pretty thinly drawn. When she's not grieving over her dead friend, she's one of those boring girls the lame "reality" shows portray as cool, trying to lose herself in substances and sex because apparently there's no other way to have fun and nothing else worth doing. It doesn't seem like Polanski has any purpose in making her so shallow, I guess it's the result of her grief but there's no hint of what she'd be like otherwise, or has given Adjani much idea how he wants Stella played. Adjani is at her best when she's playing a strong willed character that's the center of attention. Here she's fine, but her job is not to assert herself and basically just to react to Polanski.

You feel like Polanski is just playing himself. Though it would be easy to believe Polanski as the victim just because of his history, in fact he proves to be quite a talented actor. Polanski actually started out as an actor before attending film school, even appearing in Andrzej Wadja's Pokolenie (Generation). The Tenant is the best acting work I've seen from him, followed by Giuseppe Tornatore's Una Pura formalita (A Pure Formality), which he was the highlight of, but unfortunately this one non Miram-axed Tornatore is the least successful Tornatore I've seen (maybe by 2014 Harvey Scissorhands will allow us to "discover" what Malena was really about). In The Tenant Polanski seems very real, a bit shy, uncomfortable, and awkward in all his interactions. There's always a distance between him and the others, and he never forms a bond with anyone but Stella, whom he pretty much only bonds with based on her misconception that she's found a good friend of Simone's to share her grief with. You don't feel like he belongs with these people, that they fit his laid back unassuming personality. His performance is understated, so even when he mixes in little bits of comedy it seems more like fear and paranoia than playing it up. For instance, the scene where he looks up at the ceiling hoping his complaining neighbor isn't home after Simone's would be lover turns into a loud griever upon finding out why Trelkovsky is in her flat.

The Tenant repeats the plot point from Rosemary's Baby of having the main character move into the apartment of a woman who lived alone and just passed away. In both films, someone "escapes" the horror of city life by leaping out of their apartment building to their death. In Rosemary's Baby, it's not the room the main character moves in to, but in each case the neighbors may have driven them to it. Both films are about wanting to like your neighbors but learning to fear them, though Rosemary's Baby is much more believable because they try to be friendly. It's the classic case of the more you learn about someone, the less you find you like them.

Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby featured females (Catherine Deneuve and Mia Farrow) and feminine concerns, loss of virginity and rape in Repulsion (obviously these aren't exclusive to females, but society encourages males to lose their virginity and would not allow a male to show his face if he admitted being raped by a woman) and pregnancy in Rosemary's Baby. The Tenant focuses on Trelkovsky feeling forced to become a woman, the previous tenant Simone Choule. Like Rosemary's Baby, you can believe the star has lost their mind or you can believe they are the victim of a grand conspiracy. Everyone from the owner Monsieur Zy, who tells Trelkovsky that Simone wore slippers after 10 PM ("It was much more comfortable for her…and for the neighbors) to the café owner (Jacques Monod), who automatically gives him what Simone always bought, appears to be trapping him in her life. Even Simone, who he visited once at the hospital before she died, lets out this ghastly wail when she sees him like the evil spirits are being released from her mummified body. Rosemary's Baby is more effective in making us believe in these coincidences. That shouldn't be the case because it deals with the occult (there is a lot more to the Egyptian theme in Tenant that provides most of the best visuals, but mummy cults or whatever it might be are so unfamiliar that this potential explanation doesn't gain much steam), but they are thought out and written a lot better and understand that there needs to be good and bad to the characters. On one hand Roman Castevet seems like a nice guy, but on the other there's potentially something he doesn't want Rosemary finding out. In The Tenant everyone in the apartment but Gaderian seems like an evil person, but no one seems interested enough in anyone to take the time to plot a conspiracy, and there's nothing to gain by killing off the clientele.

Though the main characters in some ways are and in some ways see themselves as being victims, the trilogy can also be seen as metaphors for the loss of identity. In Repulsion, it's induced by intercourse, in Rosemary's Baby by pregnancy, and in Tenant by conforming. Isolation usually makes people the most or the least themselves. If they aren't worried about fitting in they are the most themselves because there's no one around to place them in a situation where they might compromise their beliefs due to peer pressure. Trelkovsky is the least himself because he's so worried about fitting in that he winds up spending his time alone developing his cool improved character. He goes out and buys female attire and paint and starts pretending to be the person he believes he's supposed to be, Simone. Of course, with Trelkovsky's luck, before he can work up the guts to come out of the door dressed "like Simone", he's stuck without a defense when Zy scolds him for having a woman in his apartment. Nonetheless, Trelkovsky is a woman trapped, just like the real women in the trilogies previous two entries.

The key technique in the trilogy is alternating between objective and subjective points of view. This shows the main character's worldview being so skewed that reality may be out the window. We know the main character is being driven out of their mind by the situation, and at least at times they are dreaming or exaggerating out of fear, but there's also the possibility that they are right. For instance, in Repulsion the scenes where Deneuve is getting raped in her bed are clearly dreams, but the scene where the landlord tries to rape her may or may not be. In The Tenant, the final portion is by far the weakest because legitimate instances of a potential conspiracy decrease as the film progresses and the event that puts Trelkovsky over the edge isn't believable. The later scenes, while entertaining, are a bit over the top. In particular, the scene where the mob of tenants are ready to gang up on him has a woman with a serpents tongue and the scene where he's ready to jump has Stella and the tenants all seated outside the window like they are in a theatre. Whether or not there's a conspiracy to make him Simone, someone should tell Trelkovsky who you are is always your decision.




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