The Tenant opens with a marvelous tracking shot of the courtyard of a Paris apartment. The camera guides us through every nook and cranny of the concrete facade, offering quickly fading glimpses of the occupants within, before finally coming to rest at the front door, just as Trelkovsky (Polanski) enters the foyer, and takes his first steps toward disintegration- Another victim of Polanski's urban nightmare.
With Repulsion, Roman Polanski gave horror a new face. One of concrete and steel, ever expanding outward and upward. The city served as a passive predator that preyed upon the lonely and the sick. Polanski revisited the idea with Rosemary's Baby, and added hysteria and hallucination to the mix. However, in this so-called "apartment trilogy", Polanski's beast had never been so well realized as it was in the 1976 critical failure, The Tenant. Initially received as pretentious and arty, The Tenant has become a favorite amongst the director's fans.
Trelkovsky is an unimposing file clerk seeking a home in Paris. When his friend's tip him off to a vacancy at an apartment building, he discovers its previous tenant, Simone, had thrown herself out of the window, and now lies comatose in a nearby hospital. Trelkovsky visits the stranger to gauge her chances of recovery (the apartment is not yet truly vacant as long as she's alive) and meets the woman's friend, Stella, who is under the impression that Trelkovsky is also a friend of Simone's. The woman succumbs to her injuries, and Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where he immediately runs afoul of his fellow tenants.
At first, he thinks his neighbors are just ultra-sensitive, but as complaints of late night noise and unruly behavior reach the landlord, Mr. Zy (Douglas), he begins to suspect something more. Trelkovsky receives Simone's mail, discovers remnants of her existence in his apartment, and gathers more through Stella and Simone's other friends. He soon becomes convinced that, for whatever reason, the tenants in his building are trying to drive him to the same fate as Simone, and he devises a plan to stop them.
The Tenant is a very bizarre thriller that borders on black comedy at times, especially during the film's final act. The gradual unraveling of Trelkovsky's psyche is presented in a way that intentionally compromises the traditionally linear narrative of film, heightening our emotional investment in the man's ordeal by keeping the viewer as off balance as the character himself. I think this approach is what soured so many critics on the film in its day, but in light of the films that have come since, The Tenant is positively brilliant. The director creates a steady sense of dread within the suffocating walls of Trelkovsky's apartment that, as the film progresses, follows him out into the streets, cafes, and bars of Paris. As Trelkovsky falls apart, the film's narrative follows suit, throwing the viewer into an increasingly unsettling state of confusion.
Upon my first viewing of the film I was literally holding up my hands in surrender because I hadn't a clue as to where Polanski was taking me. After that first viewing I was visually and mentally stimulated, but, at the same time, confused and convinced that I was missing something, and it was only after subsequent viewings that I began to understand that this was precisely the effect that Polanski was going for. It's a down and dirty mind-fuck with wonderfully elegant foreplay.
The film comes to DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Video, but this one's virtually devoid of extras save for the film's theatrical trailer. We do get a rather stunning widescreen anamorphic transfer, however, that holds up well to the perpetually grey Paris days and dark, lonely nights in Trelkovsky's apartment. Still, the lack of supplemental materials is a bit of a let-down.
The Tenant is an essential purchase for Polanski fans, and highly recommended viewing for those who welcome the challenge. It's definitely not a breezy afternoon watch, but if you're at all curious as to how far over the edge a film can take you, The Tenant is right up your dark alley.