By far the funniest film Polanski ever directed and as equally disturbing as both 'Repulsion' and 'Rosemary's Baby' in it's study of paranoia, 'The Tenant' is a wonderfully baroque film. The new issue of Sight and Sound reports that Polanski is busy filming his next feature film, 'The Ghost', at the famous Babelsberg Studios in Germany. I have to be honest and admit to the fact that I haven't really seen much of Polanski's recent work but revisiting his 1976 masterpiece has made me realise the brilliance of his skills as a film maker when he was working at his peak. With films like 'Repulsion' and 'The Tenant', Polanski was able to make a significant contribution to the development of the psychological thriller. The position of 'The Tenant' in the oeuvre of Polanski is quite crucial for a number of reasons. It was the film Polanski shot after Chinatown and was a break from the constraints of making a genre film for a major studio. 'The Tenant' was a reversion back to the familiar territory of paranoia, the claustrophobic interiors of an apartment and an interest for penetrating the psychological depths of an individual character.
Perhaps more controversially, it was the last film he made specifically for a major Hollywood studio, namely Paramount with whom he had developed a cosy relationship after having directed both 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'Chinatown' as two notably influential prestige pictures. 'The Tenant' was in essence Paramount extending a good will gesture to Polanski for his commitment to the studio. They also didn't want to lose a reliable and immensely popular auteur like Polanski and 'The Tenant' was a project that harked back to the personal art films he had made in the 1960s whilst in Poland and Britain. However, Paramount did not foresee the controversy and uproar Polanski would generate a year later when he was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (a 13 year old girl). Forced into exile, Polanski took up residency in France and has since not returned to the US in fear of being arrested and charged. The recent documentary 'Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired' which was broadcast on BBC4 provided a detailed account of the scandal that made Polanski into a popular hate figure. Though Polanski's talents as a film maker go virtually unquestioned, his private life has generated a lot of controversy and to a certain extent, this at times has sadly eclipsed his career as a film maker. I wasn't entirely sure about the intentions of the documentary as it paints a picture of Polanski as some kind of deviant sexual predator, which of course is a wholly subjective interpretation of the man.
Perhaps 'The Tenant' told Polanski that he was more comfortable working in Europe, surrounded by people he could trust and depend upon. Certainly one of those key collaborators is the prolific producer Alain Sarde who acted as a producer on 'The Tenant', marking the beginning of a relationship which is still functional today. After 'The Tenant', Sarde would go on to produce many of Polanski's films, most notably 'The Pianist' in 2002 for which he finally received the Academy Award for Best Director. Incidentally, Sarde's brother, Philippe composed a beguiling and haunting score for 'The Tenant'. The production details seem to confirm that 'The Tenant' was a real turning point and can be viewed as crossroads in the career of Polanski as it not only signalled his severance from Hollywood but it marked the second phase of his career as an art house film maker in Europe.
The story concerns a young polish man, Trelkovsky (Polanski) who rents an apartment in which the previous tenant, a mysterious woman named Simone Choule, has committed suicide by jumping from the window of her apartment. Trelkovsky soon discovers that the people in the apartment building are conspiring to make him become like the previous tenant and thus also kill himself. Paranoia consumes Trelkovsky and he begins to undergo a psychological transformation, slowly inhabiting the personality of the dead woman. His reality before him fractures and Trelkovsky accuses anyone who comes into contact with him of deception. The nods to Hitchcock are explicitly signposted in most notably the opening sequence, referencing 'Rear Window', in which the opening titles are juxtaposed to a slow reveal of the apartment building, which looms large over the diminutive figure of Trelkovsky. Hitchcockian homage is also strikingly apparent in the sequences in which Terlkovsky dresses up in the clothes of Simon Choule, alluding to the final revelation of Norman Bates in 'Psycho'. I'm certain Hitchcock would have made an equally compelling thriller had he directed Polanski in the film.
It's hard not read the film as a metaphor for Polanski's relationship with Hollywood. Consider how shrewdly Polanski cast stalwart Hollywood actors like Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet and Shelley Winters as inhabitants of the apartment building. Slowly, Trelkovsky (played by Polanski himself), begins to suspect that such people are trying to persecute him and eventually his insanity forces him to commit suicide. Yet it seems doubly ironic given the fact that Polanski had yet to be made into a virtual pariah by Hollywood, so perhaps such a film prefigures his fall from grace and destruction at the hands of what was an ultra Conservative American society. Though based on a novel and clearly a work of fiction, Polanski seemed to sympathise quite strongly with the psychological themes concerning paranoia, insanity and alienation. Having come through the horrific murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and the coke fuelled excesses of the Hollywood scene of the early 70s, it wasn't surprising that Polanski's sliding grip on reality manifested itself most visibly and powerfully in a film like 'The Tenant'. By casting himself in the lead role, Polanski may have been motivated by a repressed desire to come to terms with his own personal anxieties that he was facing at the time of the production.
The major criticism of the film and technical flaw is the horrendous dubbing. Now I'm not entirely sure why Polanski chose to dub the French actors in such a disjointed way. It not only appears unprofessional but it is something a studio would impose from above. Part of me suspects that somewhere in the post production process, serious doubts crept in regarding the overall impact French accents might have had on the commercial prospects of the film. One noble critic has even tried to justify the atrocious dubbing by trying to explain the decision in terms of thematic choices:
'Despite a muted critical and disastrous commercial reception, time has been kind to The Tenant - even the jarring transatlantic dubbing of the supposedly Parisian supporting cast somehow exacerbates Trelkovsky's loneliness and isolation...'
Here are the opening titles to the film including Philippe Sarde's wonderfully hypnotic score. You might also want to watch out for the name of a certain French film maker, 'Jacques Audiard', who is credited as assistant editor: