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The Tenant

(Roman Polanski, USA/France, 1976): With the creative freedom earned by the box office and prestige success of Chinatown, Roman Polanski returned to France, a project — Roland Topor’s 1964 novel — he’d been nursing for years, and the concept of the apartment as manifestation of creeping psychic disturbance. At the time, the movie — which Polanski not only directed but co-wrote, co-produced and starred in without credit — seemed like an exercise in wheel-spinning: too evocative of the director’s previous apartment nightmares — Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby — too unlike the sublime (but finally uncharacteristic) neo-noir that was Chinatown; and simply too Polanski. For the most part, the response to the movie was either muted or disappointed, and it was largely obscured by the long shadows cast by the director’s previous triumphs. Then ’77 came along and with it Polanski’s long European exile and enduring status as a man who dodged the law rather than face up the charges of statutory rape stemming from a supremely unfortunate incident at the home of Jack Nicholson. From that point on, Polanski’s art and vision found themselves in constant competition with Polanski’s reputation and personal history, and re-considering The Tenant seemed superfluous to the real drama the Polish-born survivor of the Lodz ghetto, and widower to the most famous victim of the Manson Family, had inadvertently cast himself in.

But look again: the story of a timid, socially maladroit paper-pusher who rents an apartment where the previous tenant defenestrated fatally but voluntarily, The Tenant may unavoidably (make that deliberately) summon comparisons to Polanski’s previous exercises in pitch-black paranoid comedy-noir, but it’s no mere reiteration. Considered as a refinement and elaboration of those film’s defining themes of madness, identity loss, paranoia and terminal, first-person dissociation, Polanski and co-writer Gérard Brach’s adaptation of Topor’s novel is truly an act of inspired re-visitation. For one thing, in both Repulsion and Rosemary, the main characters’ plunge into terrifying delusion is clearly marked by borders separating the perception of the main subject from some kind of clearly designated external reality: it’s in the contrast between what the characters think they see and what we know they’re imagining that the movies generate their considerable suggestions of dread and irony, not to mention our sympathetic identification with their plight. They think they’re living in worlds of murderers, disembodied clutching hands and disciples of Satan, but we know better. (Or, in Rosemary‘s case, think we do. The lethal twist there is that she turns out not to be mad at all.) But Trelkovsky’s unravelling in The Tenant, which takes the form of intensifying external suggestions that the dead tenant’s spirit has taken over his own, is all the more troubling and suggestive because no such boundaries are so clearly marked. It’s clear that the little man feels like, and is made to feel like, a constant outsider — who is mistaken for Jewish, shorter than everyone, and whose French citizenship is constantly called in to question — not unlike all of the director’s protagonists but here lent even more immediate resonance because it’s Polanski himself playing the odd man out.

Ultimately, we never really know if the timid bureaucrat is losing his mind or having it lost for him, and it is this which provide the movie with arguably Polanski’s purest context for the cinematic exploration of tortured subjectivity. Working with cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, Polanski renders the apartment as a kind of subtly shape-shifting, shadowy corridor of doubt, in which the ridiculous comes to seem normal, the sanity of our protagonist is tested and confronted, and the camera is as critical an organizing principle of unfolding nightmare as the story itself. With its strong evocations of Kafka — more than a decade before Polanski would take to the Parisian stage as the roach-man in Metamorphosis — The Tenant may trade in some time-tested conventions of gothic horror and postwar Eastern European mordancy, but it’s what it does within those parameters that surely counts as some of the director’s most inspired moments of creativity and intimations of psychosis rising like a stain on the wallpaper. If you’ve read anything about the filmmaker’s history as a half-Jewish kid surviving Nazi Poland, or have even a passing familiarity with the Tate-Manson murders or the ongoing controversy over the rape charges, you’ll know that madness is more than just a tantalizing narrative fascination for the man: it must live as a kind of constant and hovering presence in Polanski’s life, never quite close enough to completely consume, but never quite distant enough not to dictate the terms of so-called ‘reality’. I doubt that Polanski has ever felt that madness could be fully disengaged from the world that generates it or the minds of those who have seen or lived it, and in The Tenant the distinction is not only elusive but ultimately irrelevant. If one considers the career of Roman Polanski up to this movie to be an attempt at articulating the defining role fear and paranoia play in the traumatized mind, The Tenant is that project’s most intricately and eloquently articulated result. (Paramount Home Video)