The Tenant (1976) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 22

by Jovial Jay

Please refrain from making noise….ever.

The existential dread of modern living takes center stage in The Tenant as a man attempts to navigate the complexities of social situations and city living, and the loss of his identity.

Before Viewing

The Tenant appears to be about a man renting an apartment and moving in. But soon the neighbors are complaining about the noise he’s making, or asking him to sign a petition about other bothersome neighbors. He tells his friends something weird is going on and is confronted for bringing a woman into the apartment. He then discovers female clothes around his apartment. Since this is a Roman Polanski film, there’s sure to be nothing normal about it.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Tenant

The Tenant title card.

After Viewing

In Paris, a man named Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is shown an apartment for rent by the concierge (Shelly Winters). Interested, he meets with the landlord Monsieur Zy (Melvyn Douglas) who seems to like him, but also warns him about having parties or women over. Fascinated by the story of the previous tenant Simone Choule, who threw herself off the balcony and through a glass roof, he visits her in the hospital pretending to be a friend. There he meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) and the two spend a day together.

Simone dies and Trelkovsky doesn’t think more about it until he finds a dress of hers in the closet and an incisor hidden in a hole in his wall. Other neighbors complain that he is being too loud at night, whether he has friends over or is moving a chair by himself. Another female neighbor wonders if he lodged a complaint against her and her disabled daughter, but he assures her he hasn’t. His normal routines are slowly being interrupted by weirdness and hostility inside the apartment building.

A man named Georges Badar (Rufus) visits the apartment, believing Simone still lives there and breaks down when he hears of her death. Trelkovsky comforts him by spending time with him, and at the end of the night Badar kisses him good night. Returning to his apartment, Trelkovsky finds it ransacked but is convinced to not involve the police by Mr. Zy.  He then runs into Stella in a cafe and the two go back to her place, since he has not been honest with her about renting Simone’s apartment.

The Tenant

The concierge shows Trelkovsky his new apartment.

A busybody neighbor Madame Dioz (Jo Van Fleet) presents a petition to Trelkovsky to evict a noisy neighbor that he does not even know. She is miffed when he won’t sign it and takes his lack of interest as a personal affront. He begins to hallucinate seeing a mummified Simone ripping off her bandages in the bathroom window across the courtyard, or seeing himself spying on him from his apartment while in the bathroom. He is often presented with Marlboro cigarettes by the cafe owner (Simone’s brand) when he prefers to smoke Gauloises.

One day he buys a wig and puts on Simone’s dress and makeup, strutting around the apartment. He awakens missing a tooth and finding it hidden in the wall with the previous one. He believes that the neighbors are all trying to change him, so he hides at Stella’s apartment. But when a man rings the bell one day, Trelkovsky believes he sees Mr. Zy and trashes the apartment believing Stella to be in on the deceit as well.

His paranoia increases when he is hit by an older couple in a car. He sees them as Mr. Zy and Mme. Dioz (even though they are not). They return him to his building where he believes all the neighbors are applauding him from their balconies. He dresses up in drag and jumps from the balcony to the horror of all that find him. As the police arrive Trelkovsky gets up screaming that he’s not Simone Choule and crawls back up to his apartment and jumps out again. In the hospital he occupies the same bed that Simone did, and is bandaged as she was. From his POV we see Stella and Trelkovksy meet, just as they did at the beginning of the film. The bandaged figure lets out a scream.

These days, relationships with neighbors can get quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion.” – Trelkovsky

The Tenant

Trelkovsky meets Stella at the hospital where he morbidly wants to see what happened to the previous tenant.

Roman Polanski’s The Tenant is a dark, anxiety filled tale of loss of identity and modern living. It depicts Polanski’s lead character navigating the daily pitfalls of social interactions with neighbors, local businesses, and co-workers and the slow and almost imperceptible changes that society asks of people. Trelkovsky concedes on minor points in his meetings with people, such as agreeing to have hot chocolate for breakfast instead of coffee, or getting a pack of Marlboro’s instead of his usual brand. Soon he’s being asked to sign a petition about neighbor’s he’s never met and defend himself against accusations of having women in his apartment. He begins to change from these interactions. But is it a conspiracy of his neighbors or is it madness that overtakes him?

Many people have experienced those infuriating moments of modern life where a simple misunderstanding snowballs until suddenly it feels like there’s a bigger issue at play. Trelkovsky is living that life in this film, as his small concessions which are intended to be polite or non-confrontational, seem to nudge him into new and uncomfortable areas. The film can be looked at in one of two obvious ways: either Trelkovsky is going mad, or his neighbors are out to get him. It certainly seems to be the former, for several reasons. He seemingly hallucinates several moments in the night, from seeing himself looking back at him while in the bathroom, to his fever dream where the furniture all appears to grow about him. As the world chips away at his free will, Trelkovsky slowly descends into the madness of losing his identity. What ends up making him purchase the wig and the shoes in the first place? Was it that the dress and makeup was already at his apartment? Maybe a subliminal thought urged him on that way. But what about the ending of the film? His suicide attempt leads him to the same hospital bed that Simone was convalescing in at the beginning of the film. Trelkovsky’s POV shows a version of the scene where he met Stella for the first time, but instead of admitting he was a friend of the patient, he tells the truth and admits he doesn’t know her. This moment may be key to understanding another possibility.

The Tenant

Is it madness? Possession? Trelkovsky finds the previous tenants dress and decides to dress up.

Simone was an egyptologist, having left several books on the subject in her apartment, as well as part of herself (the tooth) as well. Trelkovsky experiences a vision of hieroglyphics in the lavatory as well as an apparition of Simone bandaged like a mummy, stripping off the wrapping in the same bathroom. Did she create a way for her soul to stay trapped in the apartment after her death, like many Egyptian kings would do? Is the vision that Trelkovsky sees at the end of the film really Simone projecting herself over his life and imagining what it would be like to live as this man? Or was Trelkovsky possessed by her spirit? It’s a circular sort of puzzle that is not meant to actually be answered. Polanski creates more of a tone poem, where the audience gets the feelings he wants without any definitive answer. In this way The Tenant is a little bit like an episode of Love Death + Robots called “The Witness” where a woman witnesses a man killing someone only to realize she has seen her own death, leading her to kill him instead. At the end she see him notice her during the murder and the whole cycle begins anew, but in reverse as an endless loop.

The Tenant is a film which creates an itch you can’t scratch. It’s descent is both hallucinogenic, absurd, and disturbing as Polanski’s character begins trying on women’s clothes, sitting in the dark pretending to be someone else, yet having no recollection later about his actions. The anxiety caused by the brusque neighbors who seem to be gaslighting this tenant is palpable. Mr. Zy even pulls a page from Trelkovsky’s co-worker’s play book, by claiming that he knows the superintendent of police when Trelkovsky mentions being robbed. The off the cuff admission appears to be made so that the tenant will not make waves. This statement is both a veiled threat and a humble brag. What is one supposed to do with this knowledge, but also one should not press lest it leads to more complications. The film creates a ping pong effect of emotions which ends up leaving the audience feeling very much like the lead character: wondering what is real and what is imagined.

The Tenant

The police provide something to calm Trelkovsky down after being hit by a car which he swears was driven by Mr. Zy.

Assorted Musings

  • The Tenant was the third film by Polanski in a loose trilogy about modern living following Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.
  • Trelkovsky’s tooth disappears and reappears several times after his initial realization indicating that the moment may be all in his head.

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