Roman Polanski’s most perverse movie—and that’s saying a lot—is almost certainly his 1976 psychological thriller The Tenant, which features such provocative signifiers as cross-dressing, duplicity, psychological torture, and suicide. Taken solely at face value, the picture is bewildering and nasty. Embraced as satire, however, The Tenant represents a wicked commentary on the madness of contemporary life and the toxic influence that inhumane social structures can have on individuals. Yet while many other Polanski movies lend themselves to straight analysis, with narrative symbols clearly representing specific psychological and/or sociopolitical concepts, The Tenant is deliberately ambiguous. Whether the movie feels playful or pretentious depends on the individual viewer’s perspective, of course, but as with all of Polanski’s work, elegant visuals and peerless technical aspects demand attention. In other words, The Tenant can’t be dismissed as a lark, even though it’s entirely possible that’s how Polanski approached the project.
The auteur himself stars as Trelkovsky, an everyman who rents an apartment in an old Paris building. The unit became vacant when the previous tenant, Simone, jumped from one of the room’s windows and nearly died. Trelkovsky’s motivations are murky from start to finish. He visits Simone in the hospital, where she’s bandaged from head to toe, then meets Simone’s beautiful friend, Stella (Isabelle Adjani). The duo bond—if that’s the right word, given the morbid circumstances—by witnessing Simone’s death after a sudden emotional outburst. Later, as Trelkovsky explores his peculiar relationship with Stella—for instance, he never dispels her incorrect assumption that Trekovsky and Simone were friends—the protagonist experiences an even weirder dynamic with his new neighbors. Eventually, our “hero” comes to believe that building residents including Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas) and the never-named concierge (Shelley Winters) are scheming to transform Trelkovsky into a replica of Simone. Hence the aforementioned cross-dressing and, inevitably, Trelkovsky’s own suicide attempt—or, if the climax is interpreted differently, his victimization by would-be murderers.
The Tenant has a muted, dreamy look courtesy of genius European cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and composer Philippe Sarde lends an appropriate degree of menace to the soundtrack. Plus, as always, Polanski’s sly camerawork, distinguished by cleverly hidden cuts and moves, brings viewers into the action with seductive ease. The singular mood of The Tenant has undeniable power, an effect accentuated by the opacity of the performances. Polanski’s acting is strangely charming, although he’s got an impenetrable quality, while supporting players including Adjani, Douglas, and Winters merely represent colors in the movie’s surreal tapestry. As written by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gerard Brach (working from a novel by Roland Topor), The Tenant is unrelentingly odd in every aspect except its storytelling. And that, perhaps, is the most devious aspect of the picture; instead of delivering a cryptogram of a narrative via wild style, Polanski serves this peculiar dish on a bed of classicism. This has the effect of suggesting that, on some level, the real world provides such inherently insane context that the weird events of The Tenant make perfect sense.
The Tenant: FREAKY