An Insight Into The Apartment Trilogy of Roman Polanski – Part 3: THE TENANT

***This review contains spoilers about the whole movie. It’s advised not to read before watching.***

As we reach the last part of Polanski’s Trilogy, everything starts to become more realistic, more brutal and at the same time subtler and more personal. All these three movies in the trilogy represent loneliness, feelings of dirtiness and otherness up to some point but The Tenant (1976) is the one which represent those qualities in the most overt and in-your-face kind of way. This is a movie that reflects Polanski’s own life; the lives of people who were thrown away and banned from their own society and who can’t find a refuge, a shelter to be protected under.

The opening of The Tenant is shocking especially when you think about the movie as a whole. The narrative forces you to think the movie as one concrete piece and makes you return to the very beginning after everything ends. It’s a cyclical movie which has multiple ways to read. In this review, we will take the road of thinking that everything was a result of Trelkovsky’s own paranoia and there was no such thing as “evil forces” which led him to his suicide.  We took the same road at the reading of Rosemary’s Baby as well.  Believing in paranormal events and seeing this trilogy as a part of supernatural occurrences is an option but I believe this damages the whole idea; which is the grand tragedy of losing one’s sanity and grasp of reality, then descending into madness.

Every Detail Counts

In the studies of cinema, it’s been said that movie openings always give away hints, thus they should be carefully considered. In terms of The Tenant, we can see that this statement holds a great importance and truth. We see an awkward display of windows of the apartment in which Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) will start to stay in. This opening scene is accompanied by a terrifying, dramatic and an uncanny music. This feeling of uncanniness will be discussed further as we will keep seeing this theme throughout the movie. After Trelkovsky appears at the window, he turns into Simone Choule (Dominique Poulange). This appearance leaves us with thoughts and questions of whether he was always Simone and condemned to die, or he later turned into her and took over her destiny. Throughout the movie, we search answers to these questions and the answers we find are nothing but assumptions. At the beginning and the end we hear the same scream from the patient. The only difference is we knew that the patient was Simone Choule at first but at the end Choule and Trelkovsky were intertwined. We don’t know anymore which was true or is anything true at all in this cyclical rabbit hole.  

Sense of Uncanny

In one of his essays, Sigmund Freud explained the notion of uncanny. He said that it is something strange and frightening, yet so familiar. In the whole movie, we encounter things which we sense that they are so strange and disturbing yet which seems familiar at the same time. This makes things uncanny. All neighbors, the structure of the apartment and the events increase the audience’s sense of insecurity. We feel something is wrong and we’re not safe at all. We’ve already seen that apartments are special in this trilogy. They are represented as living spaces that should be safe yet are not. In addition, they are there to represent protagonists’ own bodies. That’s why as Trelkovsky feels himself vulnerable and small, the apartment gets relatively bigger and he gets lost in it. It becomes a place to be frightened in. Presence of holes can be mentioned too as we see a hole on the wall in which a tooth lies. The tooth there is uncanny too, since it’s a necessary and familiar part of our body. But it’s not in its usual place.

Everything in our body, including hair, blood, teeth and other things, is meaningful when they are operating. But when they go out of their usual habitats, they become things to be afraid of, things that are strange. During the conversation with Stella (Isabelle Adjani), Trelkovsky wonders he can link which part of the body to his identity, what makes him really “him”. His inquiry makes us think and gives us the hints that there will be bodily transformation linked to his own identity later on in the movie. Yet, the scene leaves us with questions: what makes a woman a woman? Is just her body parts and sexual organs or is there something about the identity which is so strong that it can’t be affected by the presence or absence of the body parts?

Enemies in the House

Normally we would expect a private place as bathroom to be in one’s own apartment. Yet in this movie, the bathroom is a public place and it can be surveilled by other windows. This is a very strange situation that completely erodes the feelings of one’s security. Like the door which opens to the other apartment in Rosemary’s Baby, this bathroom is a crack in the sense of self. It’s the emptiness that the others can invade the soul through. Later in the movie, this bathroom will turn into a place in which Trelkovsky’s paranoia can be seen in its most concrete form. 

The other examples of uncanniness can be clearly seen among neighbors. The woman and her daughter is one of the horrifying yet so accustomed images in this movie. The little girl acts like a grown up while her mother is dressed like a little girl and acts like a child. These images seem so real but we know these feel so awkward and might not be true. Trelkovsky seems the reasonable one there while she seems paranoid and plotting revenges on other neighbors. But as we see more examples of how Trelkovsky totally loses his mind, we understand that he is the one who thinks everybody is against him and makes things up in his mind. Some say that the only critics we have to destroy are the ones in our minds. Trelkovsky’s self judgement and warped sense of self is so strong that those thoughts can find real bodies to get into and speak. In this example these bodies are the neighbors.  

Being the Other

Even from the beginning, Trelkovsky appears as a man who knows that he is unwanted. He is vulnerable and soft. He makes everything to be accepted, yet only thing he finds is repulsion. Everybody treats him as if he’s garbage and he can’t find his voice. He is passive and easily manipulated. This dirtiness theme was evident in Repulsion too. These two movies are similar in this sense. Especially in one scene in which he tries to take the huge garbage out, he almost seems one with that garbage; so much that we can’t see him behind all the thrash. The concierge excessively does cleaning every time she sees him, as if he should be eliminated. His identity is neglected and everybody in the movie acts as he’s not or shouldn’t be there. The neighbors always talk about Simone Choule and the stores around act like as if he’s Simone Choule herself. He wants coffee, yet he finds hot chocolate as Simone loved so. He can’t even be the main actor in his own life. Simone takes all the roles from him.

The Start of the Great Fall

After all these subtle and ambiguous hints of losing the grasp of reality, the church scene is the real proof for the audience that his paranoias took him over and everything is nothing but his own delusions. Everything seems usual when he gets into church and listens to the priest’s sermon. Yet everything turns into a horror scene when the priest directly starts to talk to Trelkovsky. He is the unwanted there. He is directly attacked and banned. He gets appointed as the other officially. After this scene, we see Trelkovsky’s delusions get out of control as if the church was operating as a fuel to destruction. 

Dying Twice: One For Self, One For the Other

At the end of the movie, his continuous transformation to Simone Choule which was vague and obscure at the beginning gets completed. There is no hesitations or winces anymore. He acts like a real woman as if this was the thing all along he was waiting for. The transformation process which was hurtful before gets relieved when he stops fighting against his fall into madness and surrenders. Now he gets all alone with his ghosts and players he created in his mind. There’s a circus and he’s the one who plays the fool. All the characters in the apartment are there to watch the comedy. This scene of the movie has the quality of being one of the most remarkable scenes in the whole film history. Then he refuses to keep being a part of this absurd comedy and kills himself. He jumps twice: one for himself, one for Simone Choule.

The Tenant is a movie that can be interpreted differently even by the same person at every time of watching. It takes its strength and uniqueness from this quality of its. That’s why it’s a special movie; there are lots of dramatic movies created but Trelkovsky’s suicide, his crawl on the floor with blood all around him and then jumping twice looking in the eyes of his enemies is one of the most memorable and tragic scenes one can ever see. It’s a movie that deserves remembrance and watching more than once.

Knowing that this movie carries autobiographical tendencies adds another emotion to itself. Thinking of what it means to be excluded from the society, to have no place to call home, to be alone and to be the other challenges the mind and the soul. That’s the thing what this movie does to its audience: it changes them completely and we need these kind of movies in the cinema who carries you further and changes who you were before watching it. That’s what matters; creating a piece of art that touches and sculpts the soul.

Ece Mercan YÜKSEL

The POLANSKI Trilogy:

1) Repulsion

2) Rosemary’s Baby

3) The Tenant

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