Monday, 9 May 2011

The Tenant - Roman Polanski (1976)

"The unpredictable Polish director Roman Polanski once remarked that he would like to make a movie that has only one character. 'The Tenant' the story he is now filming in Paris is not quite that - the cast includes Shelley Winters, Melvyn Douglas, and Isabelle Adjani, who won acclaim in Truffaut's 'The Story of Adele.H' - but the hero, a man in the grip of a particuarily distressing, untimely fatal paranoia, is in almost every scene.  And that hero is played by Polanski himself who, as well as directing, also collaborated on the script."    
Polanski in Paris by A. Alvarez

In Paris, the shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky rents an old apartment without bathroom where the previous tenant, the Egyptologist Simone Choule, committed suicide by jumping out of the window. The unfriendly concierge and the tough landlord Mr. Zy establish stringent rules of behavior and Trekovsky feels persecuted by his neighbors. Meanwhile he visits Simone in the hospital and befriends her girlfriend Stella. After the death of Simone, Trekovsky becomes obsessed with her and begins to suspect his landlord and neighbors are trying to subtly change him into the last tenant so that he too will kill himself.

This movie was the equivalent of having my teeth pulled out while listening to an untuned violin.  The indulgence of directing and acting in the movie seem to have allowed Roman Polanski to became overindulgent and overdone in the film - to the point of tipping the feel from thriller to comedy.

The long shots of all his neighbours seemingly mesmerised in the toilet, the characatures of good neighbour bad neighbour played out by Trelkovsky and his boorish friends, the mummification of Choule (an egyptologist) while in the hospital and the worst cafe bar owner in the world; refusing to serve what the customers want all combine to create an almost pythonesque humour - I am reminded of Fawlty Towers.  However these are only a warm up to the laugh aloud climax of  Trelkovsky throwing himself not once but twice out of the window.

On the plus side the sets were masterful, grubby, dingy, shabby chic and unmistakeably French.  The narrow rooms that he lived in enforced the feeling of claustrophobia that the character was experiencing and the almost feverish scenes while he is asleep (reaching for a bottle of water that is not there, it is shown but he is unable to clasp it) and when he is witnessed attacking thin air by the concierge are cleverly depicted.  This nightmare quality and the growing feeling of tension between him and his neighbours are highlights in an otherwise unbelievable story.

We are not given any clues as to why his mental health deteriorates, surely moving into an apartment with prior knowledge of the occupant would not be enough to cause it.  His visits to Simone are prompted by morbid curiousity but again why would this cause concern, her screaming can give him no reason to doubt the other tenants.  His neighbours are indeed irritating and would make anyone paranoid about noise but the connection to the cross dressing and the eventual suicide is one I am not able to make.

Similarily I cannot fathom why Simones friend Stella would have wanted anything to do with such a miserable man as Trelkovsky.  He is a monosyllibic conversationalist, pathetic lover and violent houseguest the only conclusion I can draw is that she is too unintelligent herself to realise all this.

In summary, overly long, indulgent shots of exteriors and incomprehensable relationships are lifted by fantastic lighting, superb sets and accidental humour.

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