Warning: Spoilers abound in this article.
As promised, I have for your reading pleasure a review and analysis of the third film in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. And that film is The Tenant! Polanski himself stars as “the tenant”, a mild-mannered man who is having all kinds of trouble adjusting to his environment in a new apartment. Throughout the film, viewers watch his descent into madness. A person going mad in a Polanski apartment film ? No way! (Yeah way). Polanski plays Trelkovsky , a Polish immigrant/French citizen living in a Paris apartment complex. His landlord and lady are openly hostile to him. His neighbors antagonize him. He is convinced that all of them are trying to drive him to suicide.
The Tenant is an offbeat film. Brilliant, but bizarre. As a testament to this brilliance, there are all kinds of themes at work in this film. Isolation, prejudice, paranoia are but a few. Before I go any further, I would like to rehash some of the themes that I had outlined in my very first apartment article Beyond the House: An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures Part 2 – Apartment Buildings. These themes, I had argued, pertain in general to stories concerning apartments where strange and terrifying activities occur. A brief recap of these themes is appropriate at this time, along with a quick mention as to how they play out in the films and novels that I have reviewed in this apartment series so far.
In that intro article that kicked off this series, neighbors are often agents of a disembodied danger that exists within the apartment complex. This is certainly true in the Konvitz’s novels (The Sentinel and The Guardian). The neighbors might even be ghosts or demons. Or they might simply be members of some strange cult, as in the film Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski’s second film in The Apartment Trilogy. Psychological horror often plays out in a thriller film or novel that takes place in an apartment. Characters struggle with their own identity, as Carol does in the film Repulsion, the first film in The Apartment Trilogy.
What of The Tenant? Well, his neighbors certainly act as agents of a disembodied danger. But as with the other two films in this apartment trilogy, the main character is the victim of a whole lot of psychological horror. Trelkovsky struggles with his identity , but this struggle is so severe, and it touches on another theme I had outlined in the initial article but have not yet mentioned here. I had stated that a characters , when living in such close proximity to anonymous and strange neighbors , experience a sense of ambiguity about who they really are, They lose their sense of self among the nameless. This is what happens to Trelkovsky . By the film’s end, he finds himself, not only in a different body but in a very horrifying position. I told you the film is weird! But, is this metamorphosis literal or symbolic? Does he really change or is he just hallucinating? He had been hallucinating though half of the film, so why would he stop by the film’s end? I think I might be able to shine some light on this mystery and get down to the nitty-gritty details that might just explain in the heck is going on here. Before I do so, it is necessary to hike through the weeds of the plot. So, a hiking we shall go!
Trelkovsky leases an apartment in Paris. From the beginning, the landlord and landlady are suspicious of him, even though he presents himself pleasantly. This duo, played ever so effectively by Melvyn Douglas and Shelley Winters, is never short on scowls when looking his way. Part of their scorn may have to do with his accent. They don’t seem to like the fact that his is Polish, even though he is a French citizen. Reluctantly, they give him the apartment.
On day one, he is introduced to the idiosyncrasies of his place. For one thing, the former occupant of his apartment, an Egyptologist named Simone Choule, had thrown herself out the window. The landlady, with inappropriate glee, shows him where it happened. Down below outside his window there is a pane of broken glass. Simone had shattered the glass in her fall. Many of her personal items are still in the drawers and closets. He is told that the apartments are not equipped with bathrooms. To do his business, he has to go around to the building on the other side of the apartment. From his window, he can see across the courtyard and into the bathroom. There are no shades on the bathroom window and he occasionally catches someone sitting down in there.
Trelkovsky becomes obsessed with learning about Simone. She is not yet dead. He visits her in the hospital, where she had just come out of a coma. She is bandaged from head to toe and looks like mummy, although her eyes and mouth are uncovered. She isn’t coherent. Also at her bedside is Stella, a friend of Simone’s. She is distraught over her condition. At one point, Simone widens her eyes, looks at the two of them and releases a horrifying scream. Trelkovsky and Stella will become lovers.
Back at the apartment, tenants complain that Trelkovsky makes too much noise. The landlord continues to give him a hard time. Even the slightest noise prompts a complaining pounding from the floor above him. Even when his apartment is robbed, the landlord is unsympathetic. He tells Trelkovsky not to call the police, for it will ruin the reputation of the such a fine apartment complex. He visits the police later in the movie for a different reason, and they are prejudiced against him for being of Polish descent. The fact that he is a French citizen doesn’t impress them. At one point, a lady tenant pressures him to sign a petition to have a lady and her crippled daughter thrown out of the place. He refuses, and then there is a petition put forth to have him thrown out.
Throughout all of this, Trelkovsky is becoming linked to Simone in uncanny ways. The diner down the street always serves him the drink and cigarettes that Simone had preferred when she was a customer, despite his protests. A man shows up at his door looking for Simone. He had been in love with her and is unaware of the tragic events. By this time, Simone had died. Trelkovsky is forced to stay up all night and console the man. When they say goodbye early in the morning, the man thanks him and plants a big wet kiss on Trelkovsky’s lips. One morning, Trelkovsky wakes up and discovers that his face has been painted in Simone’s makeup.
Ahh, now we are getting to the eerie stuff. From his window, he sees neighbors in the bathroom window standing motionlessly for hours. One night he makes a trip to the bathroom and finds detailed Egyptian hieroglyphs painted on the wall. When he looks out the bathroom window, he sees himself in his apartment staring back at him through binoculars. Another night, he sees Simone through the window, wrapped in the bandages. Slowly she begins to unravel them.
Needless to say, Trelkovsky is starting to freak out over all this. He is convinced that his neighbors and landlord are trying to turn him into Simone and thereby force him to commit suicide. On his own accord, he buys a woman’s wig and starts to wear Simone’s dresses, along with her makeup. When he is out on the streets, he imagines that his landlord is following him.
Finally he gives in. Dressed in woman’s attire, he approaches the window. Down in the courtyard, he sees all his neighbors, and Stella too, cheering him on. They are dressed as if they were at an opera. They are seated in balconies theater-style. In reality, the neighbors are standing in the courtyard begging him NOT to jump. He does so anyway and falls through the glass. He wakes up in the hospital, bandaged from head to toe, and finds Stella and himself at his bedside. He screams. It is the same scene that played out earlier in the film, only this time it’s from the perspective of the bandaged mummy. He has “become Simone” and he is “literally” beside himself.
Making Sense Of Trelkovsky’s Metamorphosis – Unraveling the Bandaged Figure
Has Trelkovsky really transformed into Simone? Is there some kind of time loop at work here, where the doomed tenant is destined to split from himself in the presence of his former self, while “the former self” must then unknowingly retread through all the events that happen in the film? Or his he simply hallucinating when he sees himself beside his bed?
I think the main thing to note is that Trelkovsky is doomed to follow “the same path” as Simone on account of the sense of isolation he experiences, which ultimately leads to paranoia, which then leads to suicide. Simone is, perhaps, “the vehicle” that takes him to where he is destined to go. Or perhaps the vehicle is a disembodied presence that ensnares both of them at different times. Both are on the same plight, so in a sense they share the same soul.
Throughout the film, the more isolated Trelkovsky feels, the more he obsesses with Simone. When his landlord/landlady behave rudely suspicious toward him at the beginning of the film, he starts to wonder about Simone. Poor Trelkovsky, he never seems to be in control in any situation. Even his friends take advantage of him. They mock him, and he is not assertive enough to stand up for himself. He is the outsider. He is mistreated on account of his ethnicity.
Thus he is isolated from a normal life of respect and dignity. Therefore he is pulled toward the final extreme – suicide. Along the way, he cannot help but identify with Simone more and more, even if he comes to despise this identification. It can’t be helped. He is doomed to the same plight, the same path. Thus, he “becomes her.”
At one point in the film, Trelkovsky finds a tooth hidden in the wall of the apartment. It was Simone’s tooth; it was wrapped in cotton and stuffed into a hole. Later, Trelkovsky wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that his tooth has been ripped out of his head. He is bleeding.
Trelkovsky notes that “a tooth is part of ourselves. It is “a bit of personality”. He goes on to question the notion of “the self.” He says, “At what precise moment does an individual stop being who he is?” Does it happen if he loses an arm or a leg? How about a head. He says, “What right does my head have to call itself me?” Is he speaking of the physical head or is he alluding to the mind? Deep stuff! All of this points to the blurring of the boundaries between one’s self and the circumstances he might find himself in. If he was in control of this thing that is called “the self”, he should be able to prevent the misfortunes that follow him, shouldn’t he? But the cruelty of the outside world forces him to forsake the self, to kill the self, to become one with a soul that is on a path toward self-destruction.
Critics/Analysts describe The Tenant as “Kafkaesque.” This term is used when comparing certain works to the writings of the late Franz Kafka. Both Kafka and Polanski were/are Jews of eastern European descent. Kafka is known to blend realism with fantasy, realism with “the absurd.” The themes of “alienation, existential anxiety and guilt” penetrate his works. Kafka died long before the reign of the Nazi-regime and the inhumanity that followed in its wake. However, Polanski, as a young boy, experienced first hand the cruelty that claimed the lives of millions of Jews. The plight of European Jews before and after World War 2 serves as an unfortunate, real life example of themes such as isolation and alienation, themes that Polanski explores in his works.
Whereas Polanski did not write the initial story that is “The Tenant” (The film is based on the book by Roland Topor , he most certainly can relate to its subject matter. More on the life of Polanski later.
The Wikipedia article about The Tenant devotes a section on Kafka’s influences, but I’m surprised there is no mention of Kafka’s book The Metamorphosis. There’s a reason I inserted the word “Metamorphosis” in the heading of the preceding section. In this book, an apartment-bound young man transforms into a giant cockroach-like creature. He lives with his parents and sister and is forced to support them with a job he despises. His boss is known to show up at the apartment and drag him out of bed and force him to go to work. But one day, when the young man is cooped up in his bedroom, his door closed, he cannot respond to the “rapping at his chamber door” (Thank you Poe!) For he has become a giant bug! As a bug, he cannot speak to them, he cannot even open the door, for he has no arms, he only has the legs of a hideous insect.
The debasement ushered in by his parents and boss has left him alienated, destroyed his sense of self so much that “the self” is now a hideous bug. It’s an absurd story, but that is Kafka. He goes to the extreme to make a point. Likewise, we have the fate of Trelkovsky, transformed literally or figuratively into a suicidal woman, depending on one’s interpretation. I always favor the figurative interpretation, but that’s just me. In either case, external factors alienate the protagonist, causing him to transform into something undesirable.
Similar to The Shining?
The same Wikipedia article referenced in the preceding sections compares The Tenant to the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining.
Some quotes from the article:
The Tenant has been referred to as a precursor to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as another film where the lines between reality, madness, and the supernatural become increasingly blurry (the question usually asked with The Shining is “Ghosts or cabin fever?”) as the protagonist finds himself doomed to cyclically repeat another person’s nightmarish fall. Just like in The Shining, the audience is slowly brought to accept the supernatural by what at first seems a slow descent into madness, or vice versa: “The audience’s predilection to accept a proto-supernatural explanation […] becomes so pronounced that at Trelkovsky’s break with sanity the viewer is encouraged to take a straightforward hallucination for a supernatural act.”
Choule meeting Trelkovsky shortly before dying in the hospital, a loop not unlike The Shining’s explanation. that Jack Torrance “has always been the Overlook’s caretaker”
The notion that Jack Torrance “has always been the Overlook’s caretaker” is backed up by the photo and the film’s end. It is an old picture of a group of the hotel’s guests, perhaps taken many decades before the events of the film. Jack is in the center of the photograph. For me, I interpret his inclusion into the picture as follows: upon death, the Hotel, a sinister and sentient entity, has swallowed Jack into very make-up, which includes its history. Forever is he trapped. “Forever” implies eternity, which does not obey the dictates that man assigns to time, mainly the concepts of beginning and end, before and after. In the realm of eternity, there just “is.” “Is” = “Always”.
Has Trelkovsky “always been Simone Choule”? The Wikipedia article hints at this, referring to Egyptian myth. Remember, Simone was an Egyptologist.
Ancient Egyptian religious belief, it is important to note, was based on the notion that all things are the same all throughout history
This is an intriguing idea. Still I prefer the notion that Trelkovsky utilizes the vehicle that is Simone Choule in order to arrive at his unfortunate end. Maybe what I’m saying is the same as what the ancient Egyptians were saying? As they say “All things are the same”
It should be noted that photo of Jack in the picture that features historical hotel people is not something that occurs in Stephen King’s book. For more differences between the book and movie, read my article. However I’m glad I can “summons” the “spirit” of the story of The Shining to help me out with this article. There are similarities between the two stories, mainly, as the article mentions “the protagonist finds himself doomed to cyclically repeat another person’s nightmarish fall.”
It is said that The Shining is the ultimate haunted house novel. Since authoritative sources compare it to The Tenant, I feel better about reviewing and analyzing Polanski’s film within the category of Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. Whether or not the visions, “the ghosts” of the apartment (residents who stand still in the bathroom and stare blankly Trelkovsky for hours), originate from the apartment complex itself or from Trelkovsky’s disturbed mind, it doesn’t matter. These things are “haunting” him. Therefore, the complex is haunted.
Roman Polanski – His Intriguing, Tragic and Controversial Life
Since this article will wind down The Apartment Trilogy, I feel it proper to mention a few things about the life of Roman Polanski. As the header states, his life is intriguing, tragic and controversial. According to The Guardian, he was confined to a Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1943. He was ten-years-old at the time. There in the ghetto, he witnessed Jews being executed on the streets. His parents were sent to concentration camps. He was spared this fate by being sent to live with a family his parents knew. His upbringing was indeed sad.
After he became a successful filmmaker and moved to America, tragedy would find him again. His wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family (See the Wikipedia article on Roman Polanski.) A few years later, he was charged with sexual assaulting a thirteen-year-old girl. Whether or not the act was consensual is up for debate. In the end, Polanski was going to be sent to prison, so he fled the United States, where he is still a wanted criminal. Since then, other women have come forward with claims against Polanski, stating that he had sexually abused them.
Just like the characters in his movies, Polanski has experienced much alienation and sorrow. I’m not excusing his sexual misdeeds. But it might be said, perhaps, that his propensity toward sexual deviance is reflected in his films as well. I am not here to praise him, but I do find value in his films. They are very artful, reflecting his good and bad side.
“Wrapping” it all Up
Most critics find The Tenant to be an excellent film. It has earned a collective 90% approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com. However, not all critics favor this film. Roger Ebert gave it only one star. He calls the film “an embarrassment.” He goes into a lot of detail explaining the plot, and his description actually makes the film sound interesting. But he fails to explain why he thought the film was “an embarrassment” or “a disappointment”. I share the consensus of the 90%, not so that I can be in the majority, but because this is an artful and thoughtful film. A little weird at times, but I like “weird.”
As previously mentioned, this article will “wrap up” Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”. But my apartment series is not finished yet. (Yes, these stories are mine, mine mine! Just kidding). I still have one and a half more reviews to go. You may ask, “what is a ‘half review’?”. Simply stated, I will quickly revisit a movie that I have already written about. Since I already have it in a review format, I will not be adding too much new material. And I will not be watching it again. Once is enough. Suffice it to say, it’s an average film – not too great. But wait till you read the final review about a great book that I’m betting not too many people know about. OOOO-eeeeeee is it a scary one! For those who are more interested in ghosts and traditional haunted houses, the next “one and a half reviews” will be right up your alley. Some of you just might not be into the psychological horror that haunts the apartments in Polanski’s films. Some of you might aver that those kinds of movies are not truly haunted house stories. I disagree, but it’s okay if you feel this away. I still love you! But..get ready for what will come. Oh, and…boo!