‘The Tenant’ is a psychological puzzle

The Tenant

Directed by Roman Polanski

France, 1976

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Featuring Roman Polanski’s last major appearance in one of his own films, The Tenant completes the director’s look at paranoid city life, begun  with 1965’s Repulsion. Polanski plays Trelkovsky, a shy man who becomes convinced that his neighbors are scheming to drive him to suicide.

Like Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski begins outside of the apartment building, but the start of The Tenant is engineered to emphasize the labyrinthine structure of the edifice. Polanski and famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist start their lens on a closed window as Trelkovsky peers out, and then glide down the facade and crane from ledge to ledge, ending inside on Trelkovsky’s impossible entrance.

When indoors, The Tenant is expansive compared to the confinement of the director’s earlier films. Where Repulsion stayed almost entirely in Carol’s apartment, and Rosemary’s Baby saw only the laundry room, hallway, and Woodhouse and Castevet flats, The Tenant, as the beginning shot promises, moves all around the interior, where Trelkovsky’s neighbors cast sidelong glances, badger him about making too much noise, and stare silently from an eerie window across the courtyard.

Despite filling the same paranoid shoes as its predecessors, The Tenant is also funnier and generally stranger and vaguer. Trelkovsky is certain that there’s a conspiracy to drive him to suicide but what he considers proof is often inexplicable oddity. He finds a tooth embedded in the wall of his building and starts to dress in drag in mimicry of the former lodger of his apartment.

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The Tenant is creepy and effective even when it’s Rosemary’s Baby retread minus the satanism. Polanski retains his penchant for too-close closeups of heavily made-up characters basking in another’s misfortune. He shoots a lot of point-of-view and has many of his actors play between  clandestinely covert and stuffily over-the-top.

It’s hard to call The Tenant a horror film. Trelkovsky is certainly horrified for much of the film, but it’s a defined genre entry only so far as After Hours is a comedy (both films have a similar manic energy to them). Instead, it’s a cyclical, psychological puzzle, and where Polanski doesn’t break new ground with The Tenant its doppelgänger influence can be found in arthouse contemporaries David Lynch and David Cronenberg.



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