I’m a big fan of Roman Polanski’s films, and the most recent one I had the pleasure to see was The Tenant, his curious suspense horror based on Roland Topor’s 1964 novel of the same name. It’s also the final part in Polanski’s loose trilogy of “apartment films” – that is, based in or around mysterious apartments, after 1965’s Repulsion and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, which I would wager is the finest horror film of all time.
The Tenant is similar in mood and feel to Rosemary’s Baby, but it is somewhat darker and arguably even more psychologically chilling. Beautifully shot and framed, it’s set in a Parisian apartment block and, in a rare move, Polanski takes on the role of actor as well as director. His performance as the quiet, outwardly respectable bachelor Trelkovsky is subtly shaded and understated, and he appears to find his feet as an actor as the film progresses. Trelkovsky rents an apartment in which the previous owner, Simone Choule, jumped to her eventual death in a suicide bid.
Afterwards, he meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) and they engage in a flirtatious friendship; the other characters are Trelkovsky’s loud friends and the strange apartment-dwellers, including Shelley Winters as the unfriendly concierge, and Jo Van Fleet as the creepy Madame Dioz. Melvyn Douglas also puts in a fine turn as owner Monsieur Zy.
Gradually, Trelkovsky, bombarded with pleas from his neighbours to keep the noise down at night – even though he is not making any, slips into a frightful hinterland between sanity and madness; we’re never quite sure whether the people in the apartment are really out to get him, or whether he is slowly descending into insanity. In this sense, the film strongly recalls Rosemary’s Baby.
Polanski’s drag turn, dressing up as the fabled Simone with a wig, make-up, painted nails, and high heels, is disconcerting and uncomfortable and conveys the mood of unease perfectly. By the film’s end, we’re not sure whether Trelkovsky was driven by desire to “catch his neighbours out,” or whether his transvestitism is an innate part of his own personality. It’s these moments of uncertainty and lack of concrete answers that leave the viewer feeling they’ve been on something of a weird alt-rollercoaster. It also encourages repeated viewing.
The Tenant is a disquieting, imaginative film that deserves a bigger audience than it seems to have reached; there are numerous haunting sequences, from the tooth in the wall, to the mummified lady in the opposite toilet, to the Egyptian hieroglyphs; the apartment block is as much a character in the film as any of the actors, and Polanski gives a stirring, involving performance as actor as well as director.
Much of the film is charmingly quirky (see the often glaring French-English dubbing), but at its heart is a dark exploration of obsession, paranoia, isolation, and sexual voyeurism. It’s a film that’s weird and beautiful and chilling all at once. Don’t expect it to give you any firm answers.