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Friday, 12 November 2010

The Tenant (1976)

It is something of a conceit to compare movies with fine wines and to say that some grow better with age. However certain films do seem to improve each time that I return to them. I have probably seen the above film directed by and starring Roman Polanski at least twice previously, but I was struck by how accomplished a piece it is after watching it again recently.

Despite having an alternate French title (Le Locataire), being set in Paris, and having been produced and shot by a French crew, I do believe that the movie was actually made in English, since the main cast are obviously not dubbed. I am prepared to be told, however, that some of the minor parts amongst the very large French supporting cast were in fact post-dubbed. And what a bizarre lead cast it is, including Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Lila Kedrova, and Shelley Winters. Polanski plays a timid naturalised French citizen, Trelkovsky, who hears of an apartment that may fall vacant in the block run by Douglas. It seems that the previous tenant, a young woman called Simone Choule, has thrown herself from its fourth floor window and is dying in hospital. Anxious to secure the flat for himself, Polanski visits Choule's bedside where he meets her friend Adjani, only for them to hear terrified screams from the heavily bandaged patient.

Trelkovsky moves in and soon makes enemies amongst the motley collection of tenants and the conceirge (Winters), who accuse him of making unnecessary noise and needlessly moving his furniture. When he finds a human tooth buried in a hole in the wall and when he notices different neighbours standing ominously in the communal toilet across the courtyard for hours on end, he becomes more and more wary and suspicious. Polanski returns to themes from some of his earlier films including the paranoia manifest in "Repulsion" (1968) and the cross-dressing from Cul-de-Sac (1966), as Trelkovsky begins to don Choule's left-behind clothes and makeup. He even goes out to buy a wig and high heels. He gradually feels himself becoming Simone and being driven to suicide by his oppressive neighbours, as he believes she was, staring out from his window for hours, preparing himself for the final leap.

Polanski is never off-screen and gives us a bravura performance. We begin to feel his terror as his world closes in on him. The creepiness of his environment becomes tangible and claustrophobic, but the viewer can not draw his eyes away. One then begins to wonder whether there was in fact some previous relationship with the dead Choule, whether they are two parts of the same person, and whether there is a inevitability about Trelkovsky's fate.
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