Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Tenant

Fig 1

The Tenant is a 1976 mystery and the third in a trilogy of horrors following schizophrenic tenants as portrayed in Repulsion and demonic landlords as in Rosemary's Baby. Directed by and starring Roman Polanski as Trelkovsky, a young Polish French resident who rents a small apartment in Paris. Knowing that the previous tenant Simone (Dominique Poulange) committed suicide by jumping out of the apartment's window, Trelkovsky, although eager for the apartment, feels the guilt of occupying Simone's home without knowing whether she will be returning. He visits her in hospital bluffing his way onto her ward by pretending to be a friend, only to meet Simone's best friend Stella (Isabelle Adjan), who is in distress when Simone does not recognise her. However, when Simone sees Trelkovsky she lets loose a tremendous scream. Stella and Trelkovsky build up a friendship, but Stella is unaware that he is now living in Simone's apartment and is there only to secure his tenancy. The story does not venture beyond Stella and Trelkovsky's friendship and seems to relapse into focusing on Trelkovsky's occupation in his new home. Surrounded by elderly couples including the landlord, the tenants within this apartment block lay down certain standards to which everyone must adhere, but particularly in the case of Trelkovsky, who is ordered by the landlord to have no women or noise in his apartment. He complies, but is unaware of the repercussions if he breaks these rules. Polanski uses the turmoil between Trelkovsky and his neighbours to conjure up two different endings from this seemingly simple, but convoluted plot. The direction is not hard to follow - man wants apartment of suicide victim, but cannot have it until victim has died, so checks up on victim in hospital to secure his new tenancy while becoming acquainted with victim’s friend in the process.

Fig 2

Tim Brayton highlights the essence of the film: "A plot recap hardly captures the essence of The Tenant, however: it is a film of mood and emotion, not of story - which is, at any rate, extremely difficult to grasp" (Brayton, 2007). This is true, you could go back and watch this film over and over again and all you will realise is how curiously simple the film is in its direction and production. The real essence of the film lies in Trelkovsky's fragile and complex mind which binds the narrative and story together allowing Polanski to create a double climax to his mystery. Trelkovsky could be losing all grip on reality like Carole in Repulsion, or he could be haunted by the Landlord and other tenants as in Rosemary's Baby. These scenarios could be both, truly engaging the audience with a new form of the sinister.

Trelkovsky's problems begins when he goes to Simone's funeral which is attended also by the other tenants; most noticeably an elderly tenant and daughter who stare with piercing eyes directly at him as if they knew the deceitful extent to which he had gone to get his new apartment. While the pastor reads from the Bible Trelkovsky begins to feel more and more nauseous, as the camera pans back and forth between the statue of Christ on the cross and the other artefacts in the church, while all the time the pastor continues reading his sermon. Trelkovsky proceeds to bursts out of the church with some urgency. Was Trelkovsky suffering from a paranoid form of guilt, or did the tenant's daughter with piercing eyes plant the seed of guilt within him. Polanski uses this method to entrap the audience in the loop of Trelkovsky's fragile mind of what is real and what is paranoid delusion. This method is used constantly throughout this film to have the audience anticipating a more linear explanation and conclusion to what is real and truly happening. Such anticipation seems always to be instigated in some form by this particular elderly tenant and her daughter. Another example is when the elderly tenant and her daughter knock on Trelkovsky's door about a petition to remove the former from the building. Trelkovsky comforts the tenant by reassuring her that he will take no part in the campaign to evict her. The elderly tenant places a substance on the doors of those that have wronged her, and she knocks on Trelkovsky's door to inform him of her deeds and reminds him of the kindness he has shown her. Trelkovsky already in the other tenants’ and landlord's bad books is worried about being blamed for the mess outside their doorways, so he decides to put some of the mess on his doorway as well to allow the other tenants to also see him as also a victim. Trelkovsky's plan backfires as he becomes nauseous and begins to hallucinate. Trelkovsky's downward spiral begins to gather momentum; either his paranoia is getting worse or whatever is in front of his doorway has caused a terrible spiritual backlash.

Fig 3

Tim Brayton talks about Simone's fascination with Egyptology and that it had also played a part in the mystical essence of the film, "There is a recurrent motif of Egyptian hieroglyphics that remains unexplained in the film. Ancient Egyptian religious belief, it is important to note, was based on the notion that all things are the same all throughout history: not the same as Hinduism's conception that everything has happened before and will happen again, but more the belief that everything is always happening. The best I can come up with is to suppose that Trelkovsky, whether in his mind or in reality, is always the same as Simone. He does not become her, so much as we finally reach a point where the distinction between the two of them is no longer important" (Brayton, 2007). Brayton highlights a good point, when Trelkovsky moved into Simone's apartment he found books on Egypt, when he meets some of Simone's friends at their home they had books on Egypt which they had borrowed from her, when an old work colleague visits the apartment looking for Simone to tell her his true feelings, he mentions to Trelkovsky her interest in Egypt, and in the apartment block's lavatory Trelkovsky found hieroglyphic graffiti on the walls. This was evidence which Polanski presented to the audience to give potency to the supernatural plot; not with any suggestion of Egyptian mysticism being used, but leaving open the idea for the audience to form its own interpretations and conclusions. When Trelkovsky finds a tooth behind the wardrobe embedded in the wall and covered by cotton wool the first thing that springs to mind is sympathetic magic, which is a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence, that whatever befalls Simone when Trelkovsky comes into contact with her begins to affect him likewise. What could have affected Simone initially could have been the tooth in the wall; this could have been based in Egyptian mysticism. Trelkovsky claims that the tenants and those familiar with Simone were trying to change him into becoming her – this also could be equated to his paranoia, as he begins to don her clothes and make-up, even going as far as purchasing a wig to look more feminine. Polanski continues to contrast and play off the paranoia against the mysticism, with neither gaining dominance over the other. Until finally Trelkovsky follows suit and tries to commit suicide in the same fashion as Simone. Trelkovsky ends up in the same state as Simone does in hospital, but this time it is he who looks out through bandages at Stella and himself coming to visit, and it is he who lets loose a mighty howl.

Fig 4

With what appears to be the beginning and the ending of a time loop, Polanski leaves the audience speculating on the essence of The Tenant's catalyst, mysticism or paranoia, that drove Trelkovsky to his death prematurely and the audience to almost insanity. Roger Ebert expresses his feelings on the film, " 'The Tenant's’ not merely bad -- it's an embarrassment. If it didn't have the Polanski trademark, we'd probably have to drive miles and miles and sit in a damp basement to see it" (Ebert, 1976). Ebert's sentiments are understandable, the mere fact that the film does not end succinctly and that Trelkovsky’s degradation was elaborate and drawn-out does not help. However, these qualities reinforce his mastery of film making. Thinking that he might have lost control of this film could not be further from the truth; Polanski was always in control. It was the audience who became lost by unexpectedly relating themselves with Trelkovsky, becoming that downtrodden office worker inflicted with paranoia and mystical influences. The audience was so drawn into the film they could not see that Polanski's direction intertwined them into the nature of the film, allowing him to be the puppeteer of our own confusion by using both mysticism and paranoia to engulf us. Critic Dan Jardine believes, "The key error is almost certainly casting himself in the lead, as Polanski is not an adept enough thespian to pull of the challenging transformation of his Polish expatriate character from mildly eccentric outsider to full-blown cross-dressing lunatic" (Jardine, 2004). Jardine is correct; Polanski's acting could have been surpassed by a superior actor to allow a more convincing portrayal of a lunatic, but to what effect. Polanski casting himself in the lead role gives a more realistic mood to the film, and with a natural sense of humour allowed the audience to sympathise with his character and assume his bizarre misfortunes.

Fig 5


Fig 1, Poster (1976) The Tenant, Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Time 13:10, 12/9/2010

Fig 2, Trelkovsky and Stella (1976) The Tenant, Being Boring, Time 13:20, 12/9/2010

Fig 3, Trelkovsky finds a tooth (1976) The Tenant, For What It's Worth, posted October 27 2010, Time 13:15, 12/9/2010

Fig 4, Trelkovsky and Stella (1976) The Tenant, Chained and Perfumed, Time 13:18, 12/9/2010

Fig 5, Trelkovsky (1976) The Tenant, Aquarium of Vulcan, Time 13:25, 12/9/2010


Brayton, Tim (2007) The Tenant, Antagony & Ecstasy, September 14 2007, Time13:07, 12/9/2010

Ebert, Roger (1976) The Tenant, Chicago Sun-Times, American, September 27 1976, Time12:53, 12/9/2010

Jardine, Dan (2004) The TenantApollo Guide, March 8 2004, Time 13:03, 12/9/2010

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