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PopGap #08: The Tenant (1976)

PopGap #08: The Tenant (1976)

Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by dorrk
30 August 2015

24 laughs, 126 minutes; TLC: 0.19 (sly dark humor)

I think I've seen The Tenant once before, but it was one of those viewings that suffered dearly from a small screen TV and a murky VHS tape. I only really remember it being too quiet and too dark for the medium available to me at the time. It wasn't funny; just boring and hard to understand what was happening. Not being a big Roman Polanksi fan (outside of Rosemary's Baby), I've never really felt compelled to give it another look, so I'm surprised at how much I ended up liking it this time around, even though it does a not-great job with a concept I'm not very fond of.

Polanski himself stars in this Kafka-like tale of paranoia and transformation — adapted from Rolan Topor's novel, Le Locataire chimérique — as Trelkovsky, a bland young man who is inexplicably desperate to rent a scrungy apartment, the previous occupant of which is in critical condition after throwing herself out of the window. Once installed, Trelkovsky is not only under constant scrutiny from his pesky neighbors and landlord lurking outside the door of his new home, but the inside of the apartment has its own eerie surprises.

I don't think The Tenant really — conventionally, at least — succeeds at what it's attempting, but I found it the first two-thirds mildly funny enough to derive a fair amount of glee from the gimmicky finale. I never really cared what happened to Trelkovsky, who is a cypher from the start, and his bizarre third-act transformation was completely unwarranted, but it was all still remarkably fun to watch. Isabelle Adjani is always a welcome sight, even if her character — a friend of the suicide victim who for no particular reason gets involved with Trelkovsky — is equally bland and inscrutable, but both Shelley Winters and Melvyn Douglas are effectively arch as disapproving observers.

The Tenant recalls, at times, both Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion, and Polanksi considered it the final piece in his informal apartment-themed trilogy. Less vital than the first two parts, this one succeeds mostly on the strength of Polanski's technique — keep an eye out for the constant use of disembodied heads and reflections in the mise-en-scène — and the eerie wit that underlies nearly every scene as it slowly creeps toward the crazy denouement.

Trailer for the Tenant (1976)