One of the more interesting things to do as a cinema buff is to re-watch older films and judge how well (or poorly) they’ve aged.
Classics such as The Godfather (1972) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Psycho (1960) feel as powerful today as they did upon theatrical release. Marlon Brando forever changed the concept of method acting. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer” — some dialog stands the test of time. Peter O’Toole’s trek, visually and metaphorically, across the desert is still today, even in a world on the verge of 4K video, magnificent and unforgettable (and that score!). If you haven’t seen Pscycho then know that Hitchcock invented the twist, a style that would later be brought into the modern age with M. Knight’s superb Sixth Sense.
Lately I’ve been on a classic Polanski tear. Pre-Chinatown. Specifically, his “apartment trilogy”: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976).
I’ve re-watched these gems far too many times. Over and over. Often I’d rather watch a sure bet — the best stuff from the 60’s and 70’s — than take a chance on wasting 90-minutes on something new and lacking imagination.
Commiserations to my wife, who must bear my occasional impressions after a binge session:
“They’re trying to turn me into Simone Choule!”
What’s interesting about this important trio of films is they showcase a filmmaker on the verge of legendary greatness, and each reveal incremental evolution in Roman Polanski’s style.
Repulsion is easily classified as the most “arthouse.” Shot in black and white, and featuring several claustrophobic trippy sexualized sequences, I thought it was horrible when I first watched it years ago. This felt like film school 101 in the worst possible way — a director trying too hard, actors over-acting, or in the case of Catherine Deneuve under-acting and looking very much catatonic, and a story that seemed to go no where. Upon repeated viewings, it dawned on me that it was, of course, an early masterpiece. A slow boil. A fascinating look at the devastation of sexual abuse and a mental breakdown.
Rosemary’s Baby, alongside Psycho, I believe to be the two most perfectly honed, razor efficient horror films ever made. You see very little blood in either, unlike today’s blood baths. And each play mind games, not only with the audience, but also with the protagonists. All of them witches! By this point, we get it, the point is clear: Polanski believes apartment living is the equivalent of modern day hell. The air conditioning doesn’t work properly. Neighbors are noisy, and nosy. And every now and then someone jumps to their death. Oh, and by the way, your husband made a pact with the witches, and your unborn child is the devil. Now, what’s for dessert?
But, The Tenant…!
Ah, yes, Polanski himself would move from behind the camera in this one, and star in the lead, as a mousy bureaucrat known only as “Trelkovsky.”
It’s as if Polanski said screw it, this time we’re not leaving the ending to the cerebral and unknown
The story is simple enough. Trelkovsky is looking for an apartment in Paris. Rents are pricey. Finding a place is not easy. When The Conceierge (Shelley Winters in a wonderfully sardonic performance) shows him an expansive unit overlooking a courtyard, he snaps it up. Only one issue: the former tenant tried to commit suicide and is still recovering in the hospital. “Don’t worry she won’t get better,” Winters says. He moves in. All is normal, until, well, until it’s not normal. A tooth is found in the wall (don’t you hate then that happens?). Trelkovsky suddenly has an urge to dress like a woman. And, odd neighbors provoke him to withdraw to the confines of his (dark and gloomy) abode.
Like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby before it, The Tenant is yet another slow psychological descent into madness. The viewer is often left to decide what’s real and what’s imagined. However, whereas the two previous films played it straight and narrow, staying true to the rules established, you have to wonder if Polanski was winking at us in this one. It’s enough to make me wonder if it doesn’t quite hold up as well today, at least not as a pure cinematic experience.
So, I wonder, is The Tenant a classic or camp?
“You gang of killers! I’ll show you some blood.”
The ending is likely where the film jumps the proverbial shark.
After all, how many times does one need to try to kill themself (before a salivating audience of neighbors) before delving into black comedy?
The Tenant Deconstructed
There are many informative, entertaining, and detailed analyses and critiques of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. Here are a few of my favorites:
- The original New York Times review from 1976 says the film works well, and is “superbly acted” but is not strictly about madness.
- Multiple perspectives here on the site A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity – one compares it to Seinfeld (!) in terms of devices, another calls the cinematography dull (!)
- I like the idea in this piece, that the apartment itself becomes a character.
- Roger Ebert called The Tenant “unspeakably disappointing”.
- To this day the film generates plenty of discussion on IMDb.
It’s wildly entertaining, regardless. It’s as if Polanski said screw it, this time we’re not leaving the ending to the cerebral and unknown, I’m going to put an exclamation mark on the finale!
Of course, the film is based on the novel by Roland Topor. I haven’t read it. I will soon, as I wonder if Topor’s tone is the same as interpreted by Polanski in this adaptation.
In the end, I’d vote for classic.
There are too many remarkable images and scenes for The Tenant not to go down as another hallmark in 70’s cinema. The seemingly random slapping of the boy in the park. The full body cast in the hospital (Polanski or Choule…?). That brooding score, and the sense that everyone and everything is surrounding the hapless Trelkovsky. In sum, it’s a monumental achievement. If there’s anything campy about the ending, it merely serves to punctuate the point. Living in Paris can be tricky. Living in an apartment with no toilet, and one previously occupied by someone with suicidal tendencies… well, that’s hell on earth. Gorgeous. Cinematic. Entertaining. Hell on earth. Or, is that hell is other people?