Title: The Tenant
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Shelley Winters,
Synopsis: The third in Polanski’s loose “apartment trilogy,” following Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, is an arguably equally eerie horror film. Polanski puts himself in front of the camera as the bookish Trelkovsky, a mousy and quiet man who rents an apartment in France after the previous tenant attempted suicide by hurling herself out of the window. Troubled by the immediacy of his newly acquired living quarters and the means of which they became available, Trelkovsky visits the critically wounded Simone Choule, whose clothing and possessions still adorn his apartment. During the visit, Trelkovsky meets a close friend of Choule, Stella (Isabelle Adjani), when the visit turns ghoulish Trelkovsky comforts Stella, and shortly afterwards, Choule dies, and Stella becomes a love interest. Despite his nebbish qualities everyone around him in the building hurl accusations of him making a racket, and moving furniture around when we don’t see him do anything aside from having a few friends over from work, who he quickly dispatches after his neighbors complain. As time progresses, Trelkovsky takes note that his fellow housemates have a habit of standing motionless in the buildings water closet for long periods. As if things weren’t already complicated Trelkovsky begins to lose his mind; while assuming the identity of his former occupant, and his paranoia leads him to a similar fate. The proceedings are terrifying, and the mounting terror is on par with anything in Polanski’s horror canon.
Critique: The Tenant came along at a curious point in Polanski’s career. The death of Sharon Tate still loomed overhead. His disillusionment with America was already an issue when he returned to for the filming of Chinatown, (a point of contention that is recalled by himself and producer Robert Towne) and his decision to film The Tenant in France felt like a natural move for a man whose meteoric rise to stardom, was stifled not only by the tragic slaying of his wife but the public lambasting him as the culprit. Casting himself as a man whose identity (both gender and personal) breaks down from anxiety-ridden paranoia caused by his peers and surroundings isn’t a coincidence of a director whose bit by the acting bug. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting to note the irony that lies in Polanksi’s fictional exile to France as an outsider whose persona is tormented, followed shortly by his real life exile to the same country who equally embrace his identity as an artist and individual.
And looking at the apartment trilogy (and the director’s filmography), it’s imperative to assess the talent headlining these films: Catherine Deneuve, Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon. Among these luminaries, Polanski parks himself in the front row of The Tenant. And the wunderkind director proves to be an adept in front of the camera as well as behind it.
While his earlier films Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby offer more direct explanations for their characters’ motivations (depending on your point of view), The Tenant is decisively more intricate. The Tenant is one of those films that you can tirelessly analyze and examine, but you’ll still be tying the loose ends. In lesser hands the proceedings might have been a mess, but Polanski hones this moody thriller with the level of craft and cunning we expect from the self-stylized auteur. Critically lauded upon its release people have wised up and reevaluated The Tenant as one of Polanski’s higher-ranking thrillers and a suitable cap to the apartment trilogy.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It might be greedy to want The Tenant in the collection now that we have not only Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby, Tess, Macbeth, Repulsion and even Cul-de-Sac, but The Tenant feels like the missing piece of the puzzle in Criterion’s coverage of Polanski movies. We should be happy that so many of his classics have spine numbers, but I feel like The Tenant is in the classroom of selection with its hand up in the air, just dying to called on. Years back it seemed like the only Polanski films we’d see in the collection would be his earlier European efforts that had been scantily released in the U.S. In 2012 Rosemary’s Baby was awarded the Criterion treatment we not only rejoiced the inauguration of this classic film but realized that Criterion is capable of acquiring major titles from big studios. Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac are great films, but Rosemary’s Baby is an accessible classic that was an easy to find title albeit the bare bones, early generation Paramount DVD. For now we can only dream of a Chinatown release while that might be a dream, my vision of The Tenant in the Criterion Collection can very much be a reality. If you look at the Paramount DVD of The Tenant it looks just like the Rosemary’s Baby release, except with fewer features, so long story short this question of “Why it Belongs in the Collection?” answers itself, it’s a classic Polanski film, it is the third entry in an unofficial trilogy, and it’s seemingly attainable for release. No one here is complaining about the level of Polanski in the collection. If anything, I’m astonished and pleased with what’s available. But The Tenant is the puzzle piece that would fit perfectly next to all those beautiful Polanski Blu-rays on my shelf.