Film Review: The Tenant

In the horror film The Tenant (1976), director Roman Polanski plays Tarkolvsky, a disturbed young bureaucrat and Polish renter living in 1970’s middle class Paris. In the plot, written by the director himself in collaboration with screenwriters Gérard Brach and Roland Topor, he rents the apartment of a woman, Simone Choule (Dominique Poulange) the same day in which the woman dies at the hospital after suffering severe injuries due to an accident. The viewer suspects a suicide, but there is no proof, at least at the start, for such a hypothesis. At the beginning of the film the viewer knows very little about Simone. She is like a puzzle with random pieces. It does not surprise, then, that the viewer finds the film nonsensical, confusing and scary, at times. The plot is disrupted and discontinuous, even though the structure is circular. It ends how it starts. Cinematic reality and fantasy overlap, but they do not coincide. Even Philippe Sarde’s original soundtrack emphasizes the temporal and spatial illusion that is visually expressed through a series of unexpected flashbacks and hallucinations. Yet, little by little through the props left in Simone’s apartment, such as books, letters, and postcards, the viewer pictures Simone in his or her mind, a woman that in life had more than one skeleton in her closet. Thus, it is through the mise-en-scene that her life acquires substance and meaning to the viewer. But Simone is not the only one to have something to hide, something that in 1970’s France was not openly acceptable.

(The Tenant, 1976)

The main character of the film, Tarkolvsky, is an enigma as well. He is a man with scopophilic and narcissistic tendencies. He is a cross-dresser. He/she tries different clothes in front of a mirror every night, but forgets his nightly “modeling” in the morning. Thus, if director of photography Sven Nykvist’s cinematographic choices make clear to the viewer the character’s gender split, Tarkolvsky does not recognize the dual quality of his image and identity. He is oblivious of the fact that his personality has not overcome the Lacanian “mirror phase” of development. Unlike any child, who recognizes himself as a separate individual from the mother during the “mirror phase,” Tarkolvsky still identifies with her. “I think I am pregnant,” while cross-dressed he says. This image and this statement contain both his mother and himself epitomizing an incestuous taboo. Polanski’s performance, on a set whose lighting enhances the darkness of the character’s world, is outstanding. He does not betray the viewer’s expectation that wants to understand Tarkolvski’s ambiguous present and past in their deepest meanings.

Tarkolvsky misrecognizes the image of himself as something other; he acts like the castrated male who does not understand sexual difference being victim of an unresolved Oedipal complex. The lack of a biological father intervening to reformulate the mother-son relationship prevents the resolution of the Oedipal complex, even though the cast includes a series of fatherly figures, among whom the landlord, Monsieur Zy (Melvin Douglas). Monsieur Zy “castrates” Tarkolvsky, reprimanding him in contexts that are outside of the relationship with his mother. Therefore, Tarkolvski is subject of a different type of castration, which does not allow him to differentiate himself from his mother and identify with his father or another fatherly figure. So, necessarily the mother becomes the other in him. But what has Simone anything to do with Tarkolvski and his mother? How does the viewer read Simone’s role in this psychologically charged contest?

If, in the plot, Simone lingers over the characters as a ghost; in the story, Simone is Tarkolvsky’s scapegoat and is embodied by Stella, a friend of hers, played by a young and still inexperienced Isabelle Adjani. To him, Simone, Stella, and his mother are one and the same. The connection that Tarkolvsky draws between the three women explains why, in his hallucinations, Tarkolvsky sees Simone and Stella as a mommy/mummy, a faceless character. Then, a process of recognition and misrecognition of the women’s identity takes place. Yet, in the end, it is through his violent rages perpetrated towards Simone and Stella that he is able to control his mother, her identity and chastise her.

The Tenant is in line with the majority of Polanski’s filmography. From Knife in the Water (1962) to Repulsion (1965), from Cul-de-Sac (1966) to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski directs a film in which the viewer cannot identify and sympathize with any of the characters. The viewer keeps seeking refuge within the film’s fiction and asks for closure, but the film does not offer a reassuring ending. The audience is not granted access to the symbolic order, to the patriarchal system, and their “comforting” pre-established social structures. As a consequence, due to this “painful” and uncomfortable state of mind, the viewer discovers the frame—the cinematography, the editing, and the sound that make of The Tenant a compelling movie to watch.

About Menossi Simonetta