“These days, relationships with neighbors can be… quite complicated”: The Tenant (1976)

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Tonight I decided to pay a visit to Trelkovsky, an introverted young man who has just moved in to a rather unfriendly apartment on a typically busy street in Paris. It could be any other room in any other building, but it just so happens that the occupant prior to Trelkovsky, an Egyptologist named Simone Choule, had attempted to commit suicide by jumping out through the window.

Polish Poster

Like his earlier work- Repulsion, Polanski’s 1976 film, The Tenant, is a study of the intense paranoia and psychic alienation of a foreigner living in a cold and hostile environment. But where the French Catherine Deneuve’s madness involved a latent fear and awe of exotic sexuality, which culminated in the irrational murder of her landlord; the young Polish man of The Tenant, played by Polanski himself, is an almost pathetically comic figure whose descent into madness involves an extremely curious transformation into a woman. Trelkovsky’s symptoms are more understandable, and the final outburst of violence at the end of the movie is terrifying simply because victim is Trelkovsky himself- the acute isolation that he feels, reaches us in his final plea to the world that surrounds him.
Part of the film’s intrigue is its apparent hesitation between the surrealist and the horror approach to madness. Throughout the first half of the film we identify closely with Trelkovsky’s difficulties finding an apartment, adjusting to his rude neighbors and to the suicide of the former tenant, that it does indeed seem possible that some uncanny force has conspired to bring about the reincarnation of the former tenant – who was after all, an Egyptologist – in the person of Trelkovsky. In other words, the film at first appears to inscribe itself within the tradition of the horror genre, but it soon reveals the source of its uncanny occurrences to be located within the unconscious of its protagonist. The more we encounter the demonic forces which want to transform Trelkovsky into the former tenant, the more we become aware that these forces are the outward symptoms of repressed desires. The Tenant presents a reduced, urbanized version of the classic haunted house-the haunted apartment.

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It is interesting to note that we know nothing of the actual reasons for Simone’s death, just as we know nothing of Simone herself. The important point, however, is that Trelkovsky fabricates a plot on the part of the other tenants that accounts not only for her death but for his own as well. In order to free himself from the burden of his guilt (his latent wish for Simone to die quickly and vacate tye room for him) Trelkovsky projects it onto the other tenants, the very people who seem to be judging him. In this manner, he re-enacts the crime, this time to become its victim. The figure of Trelkosky is a grotesque mixture of voyeur and exhibitionist, of a sadist and a masochist, of criminal and victim. His visual pleasure will now consist in simultaneously submitting to and watching the spectacle of his own torture.This double role becomes even more obvious in the subsequent events of the episode described above in which Trelkovsky watches his severed head bouncing in the courtyard.

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In the final shot of the film we see Trelkovsky in the hospital, a perfect imitation of Simone. But there is a powerful irony in the fact that all he has ever known of Simone has been the outer shell of these bandages. His transformation into Simone ends in the tragedy that he conceived for her. The Tenant‘s exploration of madness ends up questioning the nature of the subject, leaving us in doubt as to the original “cause” of madness, or even if there ever is a fully plausible cause, but at the same time revealing in great detail the psychic processes which govern this madness. An aesthetically brilliant film. Definitely one of my favourites by Polanski.

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Here’s the link to the trailer:

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