The Tenant: psychological study of alienation, paranoia self-repression and loss of identity and control

Roman Polanski, “The Tenant” / “Le Locataire” (1976)

A very good psychological study of a young man, bullied by others and trying to make his way in a society that is self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs and problems of individuals, this low-key flick is the kind of movie Polanski does best. Present in nearly every scene to the point of suffocation are claustrophobia and a strong sense of alienation due to the film’s spatial confinement to interiors with very few outdoor scenes. The plot revolves around main character Trelkovsky (Polanski himself) going about his daily activities and meeting with scorn, indifference, ridicule and people using him as a punching-bag for their neuroses nearly everywhere he goes. This blow-by-blow approach immerses viewers deep into Trelkovsky’s world so we feel and understand his paranoia and delusions even though we know there is no substance to them and many slights he experiences exist in his mind only; the situations that cause and feed his mental deterioration are so ordinary and ambiguous in nature that they are equal parts horror and comedy. The whole structure of “The Tenant” is of a series of black comedy sketches that build on one another to overwhelm their protagonist so that by the end of the film, his wacky behaviour is the only logical way of ending his nightmare.

Trelkovsky rents an apartment in an old building inhabited mainly by elderly residents who apparently have no other entertainment than to complain about the noise Trelkovsky supposedly makes, even though by nature he’s quieter than a mouse in a vacuum. The concierge (Shelley Winters) tells Trelkovsky the previous occupant of his unit – a girl called Simone – fell through the balcony windows and plummeted several floors to the ground. Trelkovsky tries to appease the landlord and other tenants and keep his head down at work but the constant grind of sniping attacks from his neighbours, teasing from co-workers, the indifference of police to a robbery and his entanglement with a kooky girl, Stella (Isabelle Adjani), and her bohemian friends wears him down. Add to that mix the mystery of Simone’s self-defenestration, which Trelkovsky comes to believe was a suicide attempt, and strange clues such as graffiti written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in his bathroom(!) and a tooth found in a wall, and tension and suspense build up steadily and slowly to a bizarre climax.

Of course the plot makes no sense and Trelkovsky is over-sensitive to all incidents inflicted upon him. All support characters are deliberately exaggerated for effect: Adjani’s character in particular comes over as a concentrated amalgam of the kooky middle-class girls who populate Woody Allen films. Winters does a marvellous job as the insulting, sneering concierge. I have seen reviews elsewhere that comment on how Muppet-like the support characters are (Adjani as Miss Piggy and the landlord and the concierge as Statler and Waldorf) and they do indeed appear very puppet-like! – which suggests that Trelkovsky in his own deranged way constructs his reality to revolve around his apparent “helplessness” which enables him to control and cope with his victim status.

However Trelkovsky’s need to fine-tune and update his status leads him to obsess that the neighbours are trying to drive him to suicide; at the same time, he chooses to adopt Simone’s identity to the point where he wears her dress, uses her make-up and buys a wig and high-heeled shoes. At this point, you wonder how much in control of his fantasy world he really is and whether he is acting out a repressed sexual fantasy or memory; for all we know, Simone might simply be a useful tool for Trelkovsky to act out and embellish his anger and frustration. Viewers may be put off by Trelkovsky’s cross-dressing (it does look very self-indulgent!) but as a visual indicator of how Trelkovsky succumbs to his delusions and repressions, it’s very hard-hitting and serves to increase the film’s tension.

Visually the film is in thrall to Polanski’s vision: the window and camera are deliberately dissolved into one, the window / camera as peep-hole into one’s soul and desires and as symbol of repressed sexuality, and there are many repeating images of people looking through windows or being framed by window or door frames. The look of the film is superficially realistic but camera shots and the use of panning emphasise the plot’s voyeuristic aspects. The music tends to be sparing and large parts of the film feature no dialogue. The outer appearance of people and objects contrasts strongly with their inner “reality” in Trelkovsky’s world; even Stella and her dotty pals get press-ganged into the neighbours’ supposed conspiracy.

The improbable plot is played as much for laughs as for suspense and horror, and that in itself is true horror: viewers can’t help but laugh at the final indignity Trelkovsky heaps upon himself as, convinced that everyone is out to get him, he insists on torturing and degrading himself once and then twice. The mystery of Simone’s accident becomes completely irrelevant, a mere McGuffin device Hitchcock would surely have applauded. Trelkovsky’s humiliation is that he imagines everything to excess, and excess overcomes any doubt or skepticism he may have had about the things that have happened to him. Repetition forms part of this excess and itself is overdone with numerous images of windows and people looking through them.

As a portrait of one man’s isolation / alienation from a hyper-individualised society and how his past experiences and background as an outsider without known close social ties help him (or not) to cope with the daily difficulties and upsets of Western life, and how these feed into his fears and control over a fragile self-image, “The Tenant” is at once creepy, hilarious and devastating. Compared with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, it’s not quite as scary or as subtly layered and it does sag in its middle section but it’s still a worthwhile look at how Polanski mines his favourite themes of isolation, alienation, paranoia, mental breakdown, lack of social connections and loss of control over one’s destiny.

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