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Wig of a Poet: Un Polanski Rorschach
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David Del Valle


The experience of cinema--people in a dark room losing collective touch with reality via a glowing screen--is part of the mystery at the core of human behavior. Sometimes we can even experience fear and dread at what we see on that screen and remember it for the rest of our lives. The poster art for Le Locataire and the English version The Tenant (1976) display the same quote: "No one does it to you like Roman Polanski." A veiled reference to the director's infamous sexual prowess, it also suggests his ability as a director to create suspense within the framework of his well-crafted films.

This is to my mind the last of his masterpieces prior to what many have described as "his decline from the success of Chinatown (1974) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). The Tenant was not well received when it was originally released, but it has aged exceedingly well and now critics have added it to what they like to call Polanski's "apartment trilogy" alongside Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary.

A film sublimely French in it's execution and theme, The Tenant's source novel, Roland Topar's novel Le Locataire Chimerique (1964) is steeped in surrealism and a direct product of the Panic Movement; a group of theater performers, writers and artists inspired by the mythic "great God Pan," the Movement was an artistic rejection of all that culturally came before in the visual arts, preferring to champion irrational behavior and obscenity, subverting classical iconography. It is no wonder this material attracted Polanski, long an admirer of surrealism from his early days in Poland.

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Polanski is a past master of translating novels to film-- his adaptation of Rosemary's Baby is perfection, following every word in Ira Levin's book--so when it came to adapting Topar's novel into a screenplay he attempted a similar adherence, but the problem is that in the novel the protagonist, Trekovsky, doesn't really exist. the ambiguity of the novel is very difficult to translate to the language of film. Polanski adapted the material faithfully however, still allowing us plenty of clues, especially towards the end when we must determine if he's paranoid or the other tenants are really out to kill him or drive him insane. The final moments in the hospital may be the last word in film absurdity.

The film is at face value a study of alienation and displacement since Trekovsky is a Pole living in Paris. He is a little man, a man who will suppress his feelings to make other people comfortable; he is also a fool. It is to his ultimate folly in believing he is somehow a Parisian just becuase he has adjusted himself into a lifestyle in which he never truly belongs It shares a similar landscape with Last Tango in Paris as far as using the unnerving experience of apartment hunting in Paris as a launch for strange encounters. Both films display a very different aspect of Paris than the one's we've grown acustomed to in American films, i.e. rather than flowers and sunshine, we get pre-war plumbing, prostitutes, and despair.


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One of the flaws even Polanski recognized in making the film was the short period of time in which we are watching Trelkosky (played by the director) before he abruptly descends into absolute paranoia. Polanski needed more situations to explain the behavior, whereas the novel has the power to relate all this in a fashion film simply cannot. This is why I see this film as Polanski's Rorschach test since the spectator has many options in interpating whether or not this is delusional or--as I like to believe--an occult encounter involving spirits of ancient Egypt, hinted at in the novel but under Polanski's direction and cameraman Sven Nykist's intense focus allowed to infuse every shadow in that spidery building with ancient evil. The forlorn toliet as viewed from Trelkosky's window is filled with all manner of oddities from a severed head to a full figured mummy.




Trelkosky is not unlike Jack Torrence in Kubrick's The Shining, hallucinating phantoms in an equally isolated enviorment wherein we have no idea what's real and what's vividly imagined by the crazed characters. The Egyptian themes are not without interest as we pursue the idea of souls being transmigated from body to body. Maybe Simone Chule left enough of herself behind to bring the next tenent full circle into her hospital room making as all tenant's in a parasitic society.

Trelkosky as played by Polanski reminds me of a protagonist in Sartre--or better still Camus--since he is tragic on one level and profondly funny at the same time. The French during periods following war seem to find humor in the most absurd places and so does Polanski in this film. He is darkly comic while he is in drag checking himself out in the mirror voicing the idea "I look like I am pregnant" with jungle red nails and lipstick. Even his very hard to watch death scene is filled with silly bits that prevent us from taking in the utter morbidity of his visions involving conspiracy among the apt dwellers to cause his death. Are they devils mocking his fall into the pit? Or is he hallucinating a private hell for his own perverse enjoyment?

There is a sublime moment in Repulsion, where Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is sitting in on a bench, watching the sunlight streaming in on the bench across from her. After a moment she reaches over and tries to brush the light away, the sort of thing one might observe someone doing in a park and instantly know there's something not quite right behind this pretty blonde surface. A similar parkside scene occurs in The Tenant where, having had enough of a nearby screaming child, Polanski walks over and does the most policitally incorrect thing possible and slaps the kid. That the one agressive act by his character in the whole film turns out to be against a child is shocking and uproariously funny.

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The film uses some locations in and around Paris (even though the main set the Parisian quartier was recreated on a soundstage) and the atmosphere is decidely bleak and grey. Paris is a melting pot of races where your class determines how you are going to be treated. Trelkovsky is tolerated by Paris only while he has money it can drain. The feeling of being an outsider here in a city packed with alienated souls never leaves us, or him. A mood piece that has stood the test of time, Polanski has admitted that The Tenant has its flaws, yet the more one views the film the more its poetry manifests. After one gets used to seeing Isabelle Adjani looking less than stellar -- rather frumpy actually, she becomes one of the only likeable characters in the film. Shelley Winters is way over the top but it works in context with the other malevolent figures on the landscape, with Melvin Douglas as sour as they come with a forked tongued {literally!} to draw even more parallels with Rosemary's Baby and the tenants of the Bramford, i.e. the Dakota in New York.

One thing that did occur to Polanski while filming was that he fell in love all over again with Paris. He has lived there off and on ever since. I think this and his Fearless Vampire Killers are remarkable films, considering Polanski had to be both an actor losing himself in the role, forgetting about the camera and crew long enough to create a character, but never losing the edge that only a world class director can accomplish. So remember: "Nobody does it to you like Roman Polanski."

David Del Valle is a film historian, TV reporter and all-around institution for weird cinema. Camp David is his acclaimed column at Films in Review.
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