The Tenant

The Tenant ★★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“What if she gets better?” “Don’t worry, she won’t get better.”

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum. If my cat’s reaction to my Dyson is any indication, this axiom is unimpeachably true. The maxim is usually attributed to Aristotle (in the appealingly macabre form of “horror vacui”), who believed that any theoretical void would be filled by surrounding material, instantly wiping it out. Nothing—the absence of something—cannot really exist, for something will always take nothing’s place.

This ancient principle underlies Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, the third and final entry in his so-called “Apartment Trilogy” (after Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby). Each of the trilogy's films brilliantly explores the disadvantages and incipient paranoia of close-quarters city dwelling (paranoia being one of Polanski’s favorite themes), and each considers a protagonist who may be inherently mad, or may be driven to madness by his or her neighbors and acquaintances, or may be correctly perceiving outside threats. Whereas Repulsion takes stock of the ill effects of sexual repression and isolation and Rosemary’s Baby explores the fear of impending motherhood and the disadvantaged role of women in a male-dominated world, The Tenant considers the world’s hostility toward weakness—nature’s drive to replace nothing with almost anything else, an end justifying the means no matter how cruel.

Trelkovsky (Polanski) is the very definition of meekness and timidity. A clerk at some drab, bureaucratic Parisian institution, he is desperate for a new apartment and so inquires about one recently vacated due to the attempted suicide of its prior tenant, Simone Choule (Dominique Poulange). (How Trelkovsky heard of the vacancy is unclear, though the introduction’s roving camera—spying the man looking bitterly out of the apartment window while also entering the lobby to make his inquiries—suggests one explanation.) The building’s concierge (Shelley Winters) is unaccountably brusque and ornery, as is her dog, snapping at the small man. She laughs morbidly about the previous tenant’s suicide, showing Trelkovsky the broken glass of the roof through which the poor woman jumped before introducing him to Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas), the landlord. Zy is also strangely hostile, grilling Trelkovsky about his habits—and successfully rebuffing the prospective tenant’s attempts to negotiate a fee reduction—before determining that the man is suitably serious for residence in this serious building.

And now all Trelkovsky must do is await Choule’s imminent death. He visits the poor woman’s bedside, taking a cue from The Godfather by bringing a bag of oranges, and meets Choule’s beautiful, free-spirited friend, Stella (Isabelle Adjani). Dodging questions of his relationship with Choule—who is so severely bandaged only a single eye and a gap-toothed mouth are visible—Trelkovsky chats awkwardly with Stella until Choule, agitated by her visitors, lets out a piercing scream. Of what is she so frightened? No one knows—the poor woman dies a short time later—but Stella seems sure that Choule looked right at Trelkovsky before shrieking.

Slowly, Trelkovsky becomes convinced that the world is conspiring to drive him mad, to lead him to transform into the deceased Choule and commit suicide, just as she had done. The ravings of a madman, no? Perhaps, but there are signs that Trelkovsky may be a victim. Zy, the concierge, and all of Trelkovsky's fellow tenants are unaccountably rude and belligerent toward him, seemingly monitoring his comings and goings and banging on the walls and floor and ceiling at even the slightest noise. The staff at the café across from his building insist that he have Choule’s usual breakfast—a cup of hot chocolate and a buttered roll—rather than his preferred cup of coffee. They are always just out of Gauloises, his brand of cigarette, offering instead Marlboros, Choule’s favored brand.

And he is seemingly not the only victim of the building’s malevolence. Madame Gaderian (Lila Kedrova) and her crippled daughter—notably, the only individuals other than Trelkovsky who speak in a foreign accent—are subjected to a successful petition to evict them from the building for excess noisemaking. Trelkovsky’s decision not to sign the petition, styled as a minding of his own business, places him squarely in an oppressed and deliberately opinionless minority which the other tenants, led by the flamboyantly intolerant Madame Dioz (Jo Van Fleet), will not abide. They spot his weakness, and they are ready to exploit it.

Or are they? Unlike Repulsion, which makes clear from the outset that its heroine is disturbed, or Rosemary’s Baby, which leaves the validity of its heroine’s paranoia in doubt until the finale, The Tenant straddles the line. Trelkovsky is plainly shown to be going mad—he imagines a homeless woman to be Dioz strangling him, when we can see he’s strangling himself, the first in a series of obvious hallucinations. Yet there is also a harshness to Trelkovsky’s world from the very beginning. Has he always been imagining the world’s hostility toward him, or has that hostility triggered his mental deterioration? Polanski is coy about the answer, but as time goes on, he suggests that the former is a more likely explanation.

The Tenant deploys small details to brilliantly unsettling and suggestive effect. Despite being set in Paris, everyone speaks in English with a flat American accent—everyone other than Trelkovsky and Gaderian, who speak with their native Polish and Russian tinges respectively, subtly drawing in a Kafkaesque sense of Eastern European alienation. (Trelkovsky repeatedly insists that he is a French citizen despite being of Polish birth, an overly defensive reminder of his outsider status.) To achieve this effect, all of the French actors’ voices are dubbed with deliberate awkwardness—a technique that is almost universally off-putting, but that works brilliantly here to imbue the film with an unsettling strangeness. From the beginning, we sense that Trelkovsky is trapped in a weird land, but as time goes on, we suspect that Trelkovsky may be overly sensitive about his otherness, perhaps imagining the world as a cruel place or perhaps encouraging it to be so—or perhaps both. (Indeed, even his “friends” are hideously obnoxious and grotesque, suggesting a certain lens through which Trelkovsky is looking.)

Polanski and his cinematographer, the brilliant Sven Nykvist, cleverly convey this through compositions that diminish or isolate Trelkovsky within the frame. Their fluid camera captures a Paris that seems to be rotting away, crumbling around the tiny Trelkovsky, beautifully mirroring his mental state. As the film progresses and Trelkovsky grows increasingly and gaudily unhinged, the distorting wide-angle lenses and theatrical framing further illustrate our hero’s dislocation from reality.

Aiding Polanski’s cause immensely are top-notch performances across the board from a remarkably qualified cast (six acting Oscars and many more nominations between them). Winters, Douglas, and Van Fleet are all deliciously menacing but in a tired, offhand way that lends itself to interpretation as cruelty of either the purposeful or the apathetic variety, with Winters and Van Fleet both putting their scenery-chewing skills to excellent use. And Adjani, working with the disadvantage of dubbing, manages to be delightfully offbeat, making her (perhaps imagined) infatuation with Trelkovsky unexpectedly believable. Most surprising of all is Polanski himself, so dreadfully dull in The Fearless Vampire Killers, here thoroughly convincing as a man so cowed and nervous that he must be susceptible to maddening influences. So furtive is his Trelkovsky that he can’t even make a phone call from his desk—he must get up and use a private phone lest anyone watch him, a mindset that leads inexorably to the paranoid conviction that people must be watching no matter his defensive precautions.

Polanski and his co-writer, Gérard Brach, wisely stuff the film with plenty of dry, dark, absurdist humor, a much-needed element in a story about a man willfully taking on the identity of a dead suicidal woman. Trelkovsky carrying his garbage downstairs, embodying the difficult and needless overexertion of the introvert; Trelkovsky offering to show a former love interest of Choule’s where she threw herself from her window; Zy refusing to hold the door for Trelkovsky, letting it hit the poor man in the face; the many scenes of Trelkovsky dressing up as Choule, admiring himself in the mirror, cooing over a new pair of shoes. Without this levity, The Tenant would likely slip into self-serious self-parody. It is a difficult and well-executed balancing act.

It would be unfair to spoil the delirious climax that Polanski engineers, but—despite its gonzo, go-for-broke absurdity—it is very much in keeping with the rest of the film. And it takes us right back to the beginning, back to that roving camera surveying the apartment complex and its courtyard, quietly orienting us to our surroundings. Back to Trelkovsky somehow both staring out the apartment window and entering the building’s lobby. A man uncomfortable in his own skin, always assuming the worst of the world around him and thus inevitably drawing it out. A man driven to madness by outside influences that he seems to have invited—maybe even invented. Nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps that is why Choule screamed when she saw Trelkovsky. Perhaps that is why he strangles himself and walks into traffic. Perhaps his timidity is merely his self-loathing become manifest, drawing the world’s ire and encouraging him to seek refuge in a new identity. Perhaps he was screaming at himself.

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