Magazine Poland

CineClub: The Tenant (1976), by Roman Polanski


Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: the disturbing The Tenant (Le Locataire, 1976), by Roman Polanski.

The Tenant by Roman Polanski, considered the last chapter of the Polish-French director’s notorious “apartment trilogy” (after Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), sketches a masterful adaptation of Roland Topor’s psychological horror novel on the screen and leads the unsuspicious viewer into the darkest corners of a paranoid person’s mind struggling with a myriad of social and community stereotypes in 1970’s Paris.

There’s no place like home

Polanski not only directed The Tenant but took on the main character’s costume to play the anxious character of Trelkovsky, a middle-aged Polish-born French-naturalized bureaucrat, who is planning to rent a tiny condo in a far from ordinary apartment house in Paris.

The former tenant committed suicide, the landlord is a grumpy old man, and the residential community is full of xenophobic prejudices. All the conditions are set for a surrealistic and dramatic experience.

Whether it is owned or rented, a house is arguably the most private place in anyone’s life, a space where individuals are entitled to live their undisturbed, non-public existence as they see fit.

In Trelkovsky’s case, there is no place for such privacy: instead, he becomes the constant victim of contemptuous comments from his neighbors targeting his Polish origins, his lifestyle and at some point is even asked to sign a petition to kick out other tenants from the apartment house.

In this sense, the residential community portrayed in The Tenant is a clear representation of a resentful and hypocritical society full of stigma and prejudices, where the individual is cornered with no place to thrive.

Polanski and the anti-hero

Trelkovsky can hardly cope with such a harsh environment and becomes convinced that his neighbors want to drive him to suicide, just as they allegedly did with the previous tenant.

Given the protagonist’s evident paranoid behavior and the tyrannical policy of the residential community, this duality and continuous tension bring out the hidden bisexuality, trans-sexuality, and paranoid fears that pave the way for the complete mental and sexual transformation of Trelkovsky.

What makes this film absolutely unique is the portrayal of an utterly vulnerable character with no courage to stand up against any type of abnormality in his life, even forced to lie in the most trivial cases. Trelkovsky’s character is founded on the lack of the most basic norms of personality, an anti-hero whose identity can easily be shaped and transformed by his environment and surroundings.

The majestic peak of Polanski’s horror psychological drama is how it brings up the ruthless question of whether it is possible for an already paranoid and disturbed person to merge into a community, and what happens if he or she can’t.

And most importantly, how a group of bullies can light up latent psychological problems in an individual’s mind and bring these mental and social challenges to the surface in an irredeemable way.

By Bence Janek

Bence is a Budapest-born political science graduate, who studied in the United States and Spain before moving back to his native Hungary.

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