Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Tenant is the odd title out in Roman Polanski's filmography; I find almost all of his
films to be almost intimidatingly sophisticated and intelligent, but this one simply escapes me.
Beautifully shot and acted, its central premise never kicks in, and although it's easy to see
what the great director is up to, watching this long and obvious exercise in Kafka-esque weirdness
is unrewarding and unsatisfactory.
Paramount's DVD looks great, however, so if you're a fan, this is a sure thing. And look at that
- is that a mistake, or what?
Meek clerk Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) takes over a Parisian flat from a woman who
suicide. He meets Stella, one of the woman's friends (Isabelle Adjani), and begins a tentative
relationship with her, but runs afoul of his imperious landlord Mr. Zy (Melvyn Douglas), the offensive
concierge (Shelley Winters), and another tenant named Madame Dioz (Jo Van Fleet) who wants him to
sign cruel petitions against people he doesn't know. Soon Trelkovsky is experiencing all kinds
of hallucinations, mainly of people persecuting him, and trying to kill him. Incapable of dealing with
the disproportionate insensitivity of everyone he meets (which by now may all be his interior perception),
he behavior becomes erratic and paranoid. He also begins to act and dress like the suicidal
woman who preceded him.
The Tenant is a frustrating movie. It retraces steps and situations already perfected in
earlier Polanski films, but fails to build a coherent story of its own. It's basically about a
man's descent into madness, but in place of a story or rationale, we're given the old
it's-his-hallucinations-we're-seeing runaround. Little of what we see is up to the Polanski
quality level of surprise or innovation.
Anyone trying to make sense of the film will be confused by early, broad hallucinations that are
followed much later by more subtle ones. Obviously Polanski is a master at creating creepy worlds,
and there's at least 40 minutes of Kafka-type setup. Trelkovsky is patronized, bullied, condescended
to, ignored and humiliated by everyone he meets, which suggests that he's already nearing the
edge of psychosis as the movie starts. The only 'normal' contacts he has are some encounters with
Stella, and even those
are odd, especially their joint arousal while watching a matinee of the violent Enter the
The subject of vague suspicion because of his Polish surname, Trelkovsky is constantly accused of
petty crimes and offenses, which he meekly absorbs without protest. Whether it's his landlord or a
bum on the street, he's the loser in every encounter, with his tormentors walking away
more convinced of his guilt, and threatening retaliation for offensees not given. Then the story
quickly (too quickly)
shifts into the theme of possession. Circumstances have Trelkovsky change cigarette
brands to that of his suicidal predecessor, and he suddenly comes upon her makeup and dress.
As there's no pattern to the semi-related hallucinations and persecutions, we have no
clue as to what should make Trelkovsky suddenly dress up in women's clothing and try to do away with
himself. For all I know, Roland Topor's novel could closely follow real cases, and I'm perfectly
willing to believe that the behavior of disturbed people has nothing to do with the logic of a balanced
filmscript. But Polanski's stylized world is definitely not naturalistic, and beyond a beautifully-directed
telling of events, he gives us a frustrating and unpleasant tale that just doesn't seem very original.
A lot of critics have savaged Polanski's later career, which I have no problem with. He has his
awkward turkeys, like Pirates, but even that is a unique experiment unlike anything he or
anybody else has
done. His later thrillers are often trashed - I find Frantic exceptionally good. And I'm
positively disposed toward his quirky earlier films: Cul-de-Sac is black comedy in
its purest form, and Polanski's melancholy fairy-tale approach to The Fearless Vampire Killers
now seems consistently brilliant, and helps to explain why something like Pirates doesn't
translate as a conventional comedy.
In The Tenant, what I see is older material given a retread, and I don't mean signature
weirdnesses, like the large cabinets that are shifted in rooms in all of his early films.
Repulsion's mental breakdown was beautifully managed, by itself making most of
The Tenant seem redundant. Rosemary's Baby is also similar, developing a powerful
Kafka atmosphere in and around its overt supernatural content. And
The Fearless Vampire Killers
applies Kafka alienation to give its fairy-tale vampire story multiple levels of richness.
Perhaps Polanski was summing up his decade of malevolent horror in The Tenant, hoping for
a magnum opus on the theme. I tend to think he got lost along the way. It's still engaging to see
his masterful handling of everything cinematic - the camera, atmosphere, and especially actors, who
tend to improve the moment they step onto his set. Jo Van Fleet and Shelley Winters are fascinating
to watch in their small roles, and old Melvyn Douglas is as intimidating in his own way as was Count
von Krolock. Isabelle Adjani's Stella is the only really pleasant character. Bernard Fresson
Hiroshima, mon amour leads the team of
Trelkovsky's annoying, crude friends, and Lila Kedrova is very effective as another persecuted
Polanski himself is fine - not many people know that he's just as busy as an actor as
a director - and he's one director who's neither slowed down or overtaxed by filling both roles
at the same time. He does a very good job of expressing 'self-alienation', not knowing who he is
or what part of his body is 'him', and what is not. I only wish that the transvestism was more
The reason The Tenant is so difficult a film, is probably that Trelkovsky is such an unpleasant
person. He visits the hospital, after all, in the ghoulish hope that a woman will be close
to death, so that he can take over her apartment. His acts of kindness - to Stella, to a man
who doesn't know his girlfriend is dead - don't seem all that kind. And when he's under pressure, he can
be just as terrible as he imagines people are behaving toward him - berating the cafe waiter, slapping
the little kid at the park.
Paramount's DVD of The Tenant is plain-wrap but handsome, and its excellent transfer will thrill
Polanski fans looking
for a quality presentation. The enhanced picture showcases Sven Nykvist's assured photography and soft,
warm colors. Philippe Sarde's delicate score comes across clearly. The trailer is the effective teaser
with the Jaws - style narration I remember from 1976.
The picture has a French audio track that for all the supporting roles and general atmosphere, is
much more satisfying
than the English. But the key American performers come off best on their English tracks, so this
disc might be a toss-up
for what track to play, as with Paramount's
Is Paris Burning?.
The Tenant marked the first use of the French-built Louma Crane, a popular device that mounted
a remote-controlled camera on the end of a manually-manipulated boom arm. This was back when reflex
video taps on movie cameras were just being introduced. It was used in the very fluid opening shot
moving from window to window in Trelkovsky's apartment building, where we pause at Trelkovsky's
window to see one suicidal tenant dissolving into her successor.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tenant rates:
Movie: Fair + / Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson