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The Tenant

The Tenant
Paramount Home Entertainment
1976 / b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 125 min. / Le Locataire / Street Date July 1, 2003 / 9.99?
Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters, Jo Van Fleet, Bernard Fresson, Lila Kedrova, Claude Dauphin
Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Production Designer Pierre Guffroy
Art Direction Claude Moesching, Albert Rajau
Film Editor Francoise Bonnot
Original Music Philippe Sarde
Written by Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski from a novel by Roland Topor
Produced by Andrew Braunsberg
Directed by Roman Polanski

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 price on! - is that a mistake, or what?


Meek clerk Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) takes over a Parisian flat from a woman who has committed 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 Dragon.

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 tenant.

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 coherent.

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 -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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