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How ‘The Tenant’ Captured a Disgraced Auteur’s Mindset

Real life proved almost as strange as Polanski's fiction, at least for this movie critic

A few years after I graduated from college, I found myself living in a what seemed like a nice apartment complex in Colorado Springs.

The trees surrounding the complex were well manicured, the landlord was a nice, middle-aged lady who always smiled and waved when she saw me. I had a one-bedroom apartment with a large living room, a single bathroom, a nice kitchen…and walls that were far too thin.

Over time, I realized this apartment was a very different, far less genteel place at night.

One evening, with my ear pressed to the wall, I listened to a group of squatters staying in the vacant apartment next to mine. The next morning, only an abandoned sleeping bag left proof of their appearance. During the next couple of months, I saw and heard drug deals occurring, sometimes completely out in the open. There was also the night where, I’m not entirely sure, but I thought I saw two teens having sex right in the front courtyard.

My wife (who was my fiancée at the time) said she wasn’t comfortable living there, that we needed to sublet my apartment and, when it came time to renew my contract, say “Thanks but I’m leaving” and ditch the place.

Room for Rent (Some Strings Attached)

I put up fliers around Colorado Springs, advertising my place, and met a nice young lady named Mary, a single mother, who agreed to live there and pay half the rent. Meanwhile, I moved out and didn’t check back in with the landlord for months.

Once the lease was up, I walked into my landlord’s office, thinking I had pulled it off, my absence undetected. I expected to give my farewells and sign out. Instead, she saw me and declared, “Oh, BARRY, I’m so happy to see you! I was so worried about you.” She went on to explain that Mary, the young lady who lived in my apartment, turned out to be a prostitute.

Before Mary vanished altogether (only paying one month’s rent), she left her mark by setting her mattress on fire and throwing it off the balcony. A close second to that incident was the night she chased her pimp around the apartment grounds, brandishing a butcher knife. With Mary long gone and my absence in question, the landlord had no idea what to do.

My sudden re-appearance was, of all things, a great relief to her (under the circumstances, she was awfully nice and acted, of all things, motherly towards me). I wound up paying half the rent that was due (a deal we worked out).

Reality TV, The Early Years

Two noteworthy things have happened since I left that place behind forever: the name of the apartment changed and, years later, one of my former film students pointed out that, around the time I lived there, the apartment complex was once featured on an episode of “Cops.”

As completely bonkers as my experience was, its nothing in comparison to that of Trelkovsky, the protagonist of Roman Polanski’s 1976 thriller, “The Tenant.” Trelkovsky (played by Polanski, in a rare starring role) has moved into an apartment in Paris, where he is immediately treated with distrust and in a condescending fashion by the owners.

The Tenant (1976) - Official Trailer

Playing “The Concierge” is Shelly Winters, who, upon showing Trelkovsky his new apartment, announces “the previous tenant threw herself out the window!” She says this with a laugh. In the lobby, her dog is the first in the building to begin tormenting Trelkovsky.

Over the course of a few days, Trelkovsky visits the former occupant of his apartment in the hospital, befriends a free-spirited woman (Isabelle Adjani) and is relentlessly hounded by the landlord (Melvyn Douglas), who accuses him of being a nuisance. Then, Trelkovsky begins to suspect that the people in the building are trying to drive him crazy. Not long after, he begins to have nightmarish visions -- the audience is meant to guess if he’s hallucinating or not, as the distinction between delusion and reality becomes murky.

How I feel about Polanski’s films is the not the same of how I feel about the man. I suspect anyone reading this may wonder whether I’m writing about the highly controversial filmmaker with disgust or whether this piece will come across as apologetic.

The truth is more complicated than that -- I’m aware, as I suspect you are, that Polanski is a rapist who fled the U.S. and has been a fugitive ever since. He’s also a highly accomplished, often brilliant filmmaker, with a body of work that is impossible to ignore.

I fully understand how many have decided to avoid or even boycott his movies. I get it, but I’m not going to avoid watching great art, even when the artist behind it is morally reprehensible in real life.

With that, we press on.

The lensing by cinematographer Sven Nykvist (an artist who has shot some of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest works) stuns right out of the gate; Nykvist’s work is, like the film itself, low key for a long time, until shudder-worthy imagery straight out of a nightmare creeps up on you.

Sven Nykvist’s Cinematography and Work With Ingmar Bergman-The Snob’s Dictionary-Vanity Fair

The international ensemble cast is an odd assemblage of fantastic actors who give vivid turns. Polanski, meek and vulnerable, is ideal in the lead, Douglas is fantastic, as Winters and Adjani is excellent in a character role (though, in the American cut, she and some of her French co-stars have been dubbed in English, adding an additional level of surrealism).

Arriving after Polanski lost his wife, Sharon Tate and their unborn daughter to the Manson killings and a year before his arrest for statutory rape, the film comes across as a microscope on his state of mind.

Roman Polanski on The Murder of His Wife Sharon Tate | The Dick Cavett Show

Because Polanski has cast himself in the lead, the film feels like his most personal film, to the point of being invasive.
“The Tenant” may have been a portrait of how Polanski felt everyone was staring at him, watching him and whispering about him after he’d leave the room. There is a sense of guilt and paranoia to Trelkovsky that the actor/filmmaker permeates into the film.

Polanski’s prior works, “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” were both extraordinary in the way they allow the viewer to share the angst of their protagonists; those two and “The Tenant” have been referred to as the third in the filmmaker’s unofficial (and purely accidental) “Apartment Trilogy.”

Rosemary's Baby (3/8) Movie CLIP - No Coincidence (1968) HD

I first encountered “The Tenant” in college, as a devoted fan of Adjani, in an effort to see all of her movies available in this country. Polanski’s film was hard to track down, even in the heyday of video rentals and my initial reaction to it was bitter disappointment.

The ending infuriated me.

Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I’d rent it again and again, getting more hooked on certain details each time. I don’t use the word “addictive” to describe many films, but it applies in this case. Subsequent viewings reveal foreshadowing too subtle to catch initially. In fact, the elegant, subtle opening credits sequence (filmed in one take and panning outside the apartment building) carefully sets the themes of voyeurism and alternating identities in place.

The subject of duality has been a consistent element of Polanski’s films, whether dealing with how extreme circumstances change the person you thought you were (as in “Knife in the Water” and “The Tenant”), what one is willing to do to survive (“Tess” and “Chinatown”) or how the ordinary conceals the presence of evil (“Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Ninth Gate”).

It was also the focus of Polanski’s famously unmade “The Double,” a Dostoevsky adaptation he almost filmed with John Travolta and Isabelle Adjani in the leads (reportedly, Travolta and Polanski had contrasting visions and split before production began).

Whether Trelkovsky’s torment is real or imagined, his downward psychological spiral is ugly. A scene in which he acts cruelly to a sweet child in a park has always bothered me. So do the terrifying shots of apartment dwellers across from Trelkovsky’s window, who stand motionless, staring at him.

The feeling of unwanted guests closing in on you is made so unsettling and evocative, it appears that this is what Darren Aronofsky was going for in his “mother!.”

mother! movie (2017) - official trailer - paramount pictures

“The Tenant” questions proper etiquette with others -- when do we stop being nice, put people-pleasing aside and put our foot down? Aspects of the film reminded me of both Franz Kafka and even the more modern novelist Thomas Berger. A key moment is when Douglas’ bullying landlord urges Trelkovsky he must make his neighbors “comfortable.” How is he, or anyone, supposed to do this?

This is the final of three films that Polanski made at Paramount Pictures, following the blockbuster “Rosemary’s Baby” and the acclaimed “Chinatown.” While this is a far scrappier, looser and weirder movie than those two, it shows a filmmaker with a gift for getting under your skin.

RELATED: How ‘The ‘Burbs’ Trumps Damon’s ‘Suburbicon’

This extremely-faithful adaptation of the 1964 Roland Topor novel maintains a dark sense of humor but is every bit as disturbing as “Rosemary’s Baby”- that final closing image, and the way it cuts abruptly to the Paramount Pictures logo (there are no end credits) is a killer parting shot.

“The Tenant” has been available in a bare-bones DVD, sporting only an alternate language option. Currently, it’s on Amazon Prime. The biggest news is that this July, the wonderful Scream Factory home video company is giving the film its first-ever Blu-ray release.

The state of being stuck inside, feeling suspicious of the world outside and fearful of your own state of mind while remaining indoors, is something we’re all thinking about lately. Polanski’s film connects to the unease of living in a box, surrounded by strangers on the other side of the wall…and battling with the taunting shadows that exist inside our head.

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One Comment

  1. Richard Ayoade directed a very good adaptation of The Double in 2014 starring Jesse Eisenberg, that stylistically owed a lot to Polanski.

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