Friday, October 26, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.9: Roman Polanski's The Tenant

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 79 (B+)

“What the fuck is this thing?” That’s more or less what ran through my head about two-thirds of the way through my first viewing of The Tenant, Roman Polanski’s surreal, strange closing chapter to the loose “Apartment Trilogy” he started with the twin masterworks Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the film, I still didn’t have my answer. The Tenant was very poorly received upon its initial release only to find a cult following years later, but it’s still one of the most polarizing works in Polanski’s filmography. It’s not without reason: this thing is nuts. It took a second viewing for me to decide whether the film was a fascinating misfire or a flawed but worthwhile gem, and even after I decided on the latter, there’s plenty here I’m wrestling with.

Trelkovsky (Polanski) is a Polish-born accountant living in Paris. He comes to an upscale apartment building and leases a room whose previous tenant recently attempted suicide. Trelkovsky visits her before she dies, and she screams upon seeing him. It only gets stranger from there: Trelkovsky deals with a group of obnoxious neighbors, from his landlord Mr. Zy (Melvyn Douglas) to the unnamed concierge (Shelly Winters) to the building’s busybody Madame Dioz (Jo Van Fleet). Trelkovsky is mild-mannered by nature, but the neighbors think he’s the one who’s making too much noise every night. Add that to some generally strange behavior like neighbors standing in the bathroom (which has an open window across from Trelkovsky’s room) motionless every night, and Trelkovsky begins to think that there’s something not right in the building, that the neighbors are trying to get him to commit suicide like the previous tenant, and finally that they’re literally trying to turn him into the previous tenant.

The Tenant mirrors Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in several ways: the blend of Hitchcockian suspense with absurdism, the use of a Kafkaesque world that exists to break down the protagonist, and the fever dream intensity with which Polanski approaches portrayal of madness. But The Tenant is noticeably more unhinged than the earlier films, with greater touches of (frequently hilarious) Fellini-esque comedy of grotesques and a more pronounced element of black humor than the earlier films had. Where the earlier films had a more solidly structured narrative to play off of, The Tenant frequently flies off the rails into moments of absurdist humor (Polanski and Isabelle Adjani feeling each other up during a screening of Enter the Dragon) to flat-out weirdness (a scene in which Trelkovsky slaps a small child for no apparent reason). That unfiltered quality sometimes makes the film awkward (not helped by some horrendous dubbing from French to English of some of the supporting actors) and unclear, as if Polanski was so consumed with raw, intuitive emotion that he didn’t clarify what he was trying to say.

But it also gives the film an unnerving intensity and creepiness that occasionally even outdoes Rosemary’s Baby. One of the finest scenes in the film shows Polanski playing with his signature mixture of humor and surrealism when Trelkovsky, after being stopped by an irate Melvyn Douglas, keeps dropping trash down the stairs as he goes to take the garbage out. There’s something inexplicably unnerving about the garbage hitting the floor, made more so when Trelkovsky comes back up the stairs to find the area completely clean. It’s a perfect example of the slow descent into madness Polanski specializes in- even with something as simple as taking the garbage out, we can never trust what we see. One of the film’s flaws is that at the film’s midpoint, Trelkovsky’s slow spiral suddenly gets an unexplained gearshift into complete insanity, but it’s hard to complain when it leads to spectacular set-pieces like Trelkovsky’s strange trip to the bathroom: he walks down the hall in a dazed state only to look out the bathroom window and see someone in his room. When he runs back, Polanski takes a low angle shot that disorients us before Trelkovsky reaches his room, where he looks through the window to the bathroom and sees the previous tenant, wrapped in gauze, remove her bandages and give him a terrifying smile.

What the hell does it all add up to? The film’s thesis feels less worked out than Polanski’s previous horror masterpieces, but above all else it’s another tale of madness as a result of a world without order. Where Repulsion saw Carole descend into insanity as a result of sexual fear and repression and Rosemary’s Baby saw Rosemary’s paranoia as a result of both the occult and maternal anxiety, The Tenant is largely about how the world’s insanity poisons the mind. Trelkovsky wants nothing more than to live in peace, but there’s a strange xenophobic air to the apartment building (Polanski took from his own experiences as a Pole in France). No matter what he does, he’s viewed as the creepy outsider whose ways don’t gel with the other tenants. They try to control his every behavior, and he’s too meek to stand up for himself. The sense that he can’t be himself in his apartment, or in a church, or on the street is overpowering, and as he gradually takes on the characteristics of a woman (more girlish hair, make-up, a wig), he becomes more susceptible to change. This could be viewed as either A. Polanski’s commentary of how society controls women, or B. Polanski’s own problematic views towards women.

That gives The Tenant a certain uneasy quality that it may not have intended. It isn’t helped by Polanski’s decision to cast himself as another meek innocent considering that he was, by all accounts, a brash and rather forceful personality (that said, he’s good in the role), not to mention someone who was about to be charged with a serious crime. Nor is it helped by a buggy ending that’s a bit too predictable for the narrative, or that the film was topped a year later by David Lynch’s similar, stronger Eraserhead, or that it was topped again by the Coens’ Tenant-influenced Barton Fink. But it’s a stunning and fascinating film all the same, and a fitting end to the first half of Polanski’s career.

ORDER OF BUSINESS: Yeah, I know things are running really slow on this edition of Director Spotlight. Applying for Grad School = time eaten away. Hopefully I’ll have it all done within the first week of November, but it could stretch out longer, at which point I’ll move my planned November director to another month, as I’ve had December planned for a long time. Stay tuned. 

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