31 October 2007 | Steffi_P
"What right has my head to call itself me?"
After his classic film noir homage Chinatown Roman Polanski returned to the themes that had given him his greatest hits in the 60s with this creepy psychological horror which, like Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, deals with the paranoia and claustrophobia generated by apartment living.
Claustrophobic environments are the ones which Polanski is best at creating, and this has to be the most suffocating and confined picture he ever created. The emphasis on side walls and distant vanishing points is greater than ever, and even in the small number of exterior scenes the sky is rarely glimpsed. But The Tenant is not just confined spatially, but also in the intensity with which it focuses on its protagonist. Trelkovsky, played by Polanski himself is not only in every scene, he is in virtually every shot. When he is not on screen more often than not the camera becomes Trelkovsky's point of view. And of course almost everywhere he looks he sees his own reflection staring back at him in a mirror.
I can't think of any film that is more about the internalisation and solitude of one character. Some psychological thrillers, like M or Peeping Tom, manipulate us into feeling sorry for the mentally ill protagonist. Others, like Psycho, attempt in-depth scientific analysis of his mental condition. The Tenant fits into neither of these categories it simply immerses us completely inside Trelkovsky's experience without demanding we actually understand or appreciate what is going on inside his head. We feel his paranoia and obsession even though it is constantly revealed to us that they are irrational.
Polanski was also a master of the slowly unfolding horror film. Often in his horrors there is an ambiguity as to whether there is actually anything sinister going on, but they are among the most effective at frightening audiences. Why? Precisely because they unfold so slowly and invest so much time in painstakingly setting up situations that they immerse the viewer in paranoia. A much later Polanski horror, The Ninth Gate is a bit of a mess plot-wise but at least it still manages to achieve that creeping sense of dread.
This is a rare chance to see Polanski himself in a major role. His talent in front of the camera was as good as behind it, and he is absolutely perfect as the meek Trelkovsky. Another standout performance is that of the all-too-often overlooked Shelley Winters as the concierge. In actual fact it is rather a stellar cast, although many of the familiar faces look out of place in this strange, Gothic European movie. Also sadly many of the French actors in supporting roles are atrociously dubbed in the English language version.
The Tenant is more polished and less pretentious than Repulsion, but it lacks the suspense and the character that make Rosemary's Baby so engrossing and entertaining. The Tenant is good, with no major flaws, and Polanski was really on top form as a director, but it's not among his most gripping works.