The third in a loose trilogy (along with Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby) linked by themes of urban living, paranoia, and mental decay, The Tenant is one of Roman Polanski’s most personal works. Although bearing some stylistic and thematic similarities to those other two films, it is strikingly different, not least because, by casting himself in the lead, Polanski offers us a troubling journey into his mind.
Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski), a shy man who works as a bureaucrat, takes an apartment in Paris, not knowing the previous tenant, a lady called Simone Choule, tried to commit suicide by throwing herself out the window. Although he is happy at first, the concierge (Shelley Winters), the tough landlord Mr Zy, and the oddly behaved neighbours, all start to get to him. Is he slowly losing his mind? Or, do they want him to go the same way as Simone?
Coming after Chinatown, an American film with American stars, The Tenant feels like a deliberate decision by Polanski to get back to his lower budget, European roots. Pretty much the whole film is seen through the eyes of Trelkovsky, using the classic device of the “unreliable narrator”, and starts in a fairly straightforward, even low key fashion, playing many of the scenes for laughs, albeit sometimes uncomfortable ones (and showcasing Polanski’s skill as a comic actor). However, as the tone gradually turns increasingly dark, surreal and paranoid, the plot twists and camera angles grow ever more disorientating. The bleak world created is one where the weak will always be harassed and bullied by those stronger than them, or worse, those just as weak as they are, and the other characters are largely grotesque caricatures, in keeping with the nightmarish and darkly comic feel.
The casting by Polanski of himself in the lead role is one of the most interesting aspects of The Tenant, and there are a few reasons that I can think of as to why would have done this. First, is narcissism, and why not, as at the time he certainly had a reputation as an egomaniac. Secondly it may have been for practical reasons, as, working without Hollywood dollars, why not save some cash on stars salaries? Thirdly, as well as an egomaniac, he also had a reputation as a control freak, and after his well-publicised run-ins with Faye Dunaway on Chinatown, perhaps he wants a lead actor he can easily exert some control over.
However, what if it was done as a deliberate artistic decision? This would make the film an intensely personal vision of his own paranoia and persecution complex, inviting us in to share it, as opposed to Repulsion, where he is inviting us to watch someone else, from a distance. It comes from the period after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn baby at the hands of the Manson Family, and just before fleeing the US and possible jail time for sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl, so there would be no shortage of dark things going on in his head.
The "twist" ending is the only real disappointment in The Tenant, and anyone who has seen a few episodes of The Twilight Zone or Tales of The Unexpected will see it coming. Aside from that, this is a disturbing vision of hell, a hell created by oneself as much as by other people.