In the '60s, many mainstream movies went quite crazy. It was the era of indiscriminate flashbacks and flashforwards, not to mention all those mental inserts which vacillated mysteriously between the status of memory, dream or reverie. In ensuing decades, this madness was occasionally revived by Dennis Potter's TV extravaganzas, or David Cronenberg's adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991).
Of all the great, popular filmmakers, perhaps the one who has most consistently kept faith with this kind of experimental research is Roman Polanski. From Repulsion (1965) to Death and the Maiden (1994), Polanski has plundered themes of seclusion, persecution, paranoia and psychosis for all of the delicious, intricate mysteries that they allow.
His best films resemble highly contained and controlled laboratory experiments: in a circumscribed space and time, centring on the fraught consciousness of a single main character, Polanski is able to test out every cinematic possibility.
Viewed today, The Tenant reveals a less well-recognised aspect of Polanski's mastery and virtuosity – namely, his acting talent. He is one of those directors (like Elia Kazan or Nicholas Ray) who began as an actor, and his keen sense of what it means to place the postures and movements of his own body inside a film frame is a constant marvel.
This achievement is all the more delightful in that the story and themes of this piece demand a kind of anti-naturalist stylisation which constantly borders on the grotesque, horrific and farcical.
Polanski plays Trelkovsky, a lonely, cautious man who has a hard time settling down peacefully in a Parisian apartment block. At every turn he encounters subtle signs of neighbourly xenophobia, suspicion and backbiting. To make matters far worse, his inauspicious lodgings are veritably haunted by a gruesome recent history: the former tenant, a mysterious woman, committed suicide by hurling herself out the window.
Trelkovsky finds himself slowly overtaken by the ghost of this previous tenant – living out her tragic history and adopting her identity. Anticipating many gender-obsessed dramas of the '90s, Polanski's nervous hero is constantly tormented by signs of sexual ambiguity: ballsy feminists, mincing queens, hyper-aggro straight males, and transvestism. It is simultaneously an allegory of racial and political persecution – particularly whenever Trelkovsky spies, from his window, the vicious treatment meted out to a mother-and-daughter couple in the same building.
The Tenant is a cold, black, relentless, sometimes mechanical exercise – but it is perfectly calculated. Polanski guides us with assurance from the observational objectivity of early sequences through to his preferred realm where reality and hallucination mix in indecidable doses.
By the end, the prevailing, creepy frisson of the premise has shrunken to something fairly anecdotal – making it seem more like an enhanced episode of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery than a true Polanski masterpiece.
But, despite its limitations, this is indispensable viewing for all students of film.
© Adrian Martin November 1997