"If I cut off my arm, I say 'me and my arm,'
but if I cut off my head do I say,
'me and my head' or
'me and my body'?"
So, I hear that little Stormin' Roman is back on the movie scene. Maybe he's even going to be coming to America to face those pesky charges of statutory rape which have been hanging over his head for 25 years, since some Stage Mom taught her little baby way too well about how to get ahead in Hollywood. Really, I don't know why he'd bother.
The first film I ever saw by Polanski was Nóz w wodzie, Knife in the Water, released in 1962 in Poland and one year later in America. I found it an acceptable piece of European filmmaking at an age when I was caught up, like so many little students of film before and after me, with the whole idea of a movie spoken in a foreign language. It was a black and white study of a married couple who invite danger in the form of a man onto their little world of a boat. He then did Repulsion in 1965, and a good friend of mine in Memphis claims to this day that this was the precursor as well as a female version of The Tenant. We both agree that The Tenant is much more frightening and far superior.
Polanski had already completed his legacy films, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) before Le Locataire (The Tenant) came out in 1976.
I haven't seen this film in many, many years, and it's hard to say how unnerving it would be to see it at this point in my life. I'm not even sure I'd like to find out. All is know is this: When I saw this film in a huge empty theatre, alone, when I was in my late twenties, it scared me more than any other film I've ever seen before or since. It might have been the frame of mind I was in at the time. It might have been the moon. But, it might just have been that this is one nightmare of a celluloid ride to hell.
And, in case you think I am the only one on the planet who thinks this may be the scariest film ever made, try this: When you watch The Ring on DVD, which many (including my daughter) say is the scariest film they've ever seen, check out the feature on the DVD called "Don't watch this". It's a sort of mini-flick which not only gives you some information that might help understand the main film, but would also stand alone as a good short student film. Anyway, at the very end of this mini-flick, the dreaded deathly video is sitting on a shelf in a busy video rental outlet. As the camera moves in to a close-up of the unboxed black video leaning against several other boxed videos on the "Manager's Pick" shelf, the movie sitting right next to it is none other than The Tenant. That gave me chillbumps when I saw that and it made me like The Ring even more.
I'm sure Polanski has led a life of horror that many of us can only imagine. When he was a kid, he lived in Poland and had to pass as a Christian while living with friends of his family as a child. His parents were taken to Auschwitz and his dad came out of it alive, somehow. As an adolescent, he wanted to become an actor but found this close to impossible in Communist Poland. After a rebirth in America, his wife was murdered by some whacked out cult folks. All of this happened, of course, before he made The Tenant. Most folks would probably like to just repress the brutality in a life like this and attempt to forget about it. I suspect that Mr. Polanski finds that unacceptable.
The movie is based on a novel by Roland Topor. You might (or might not) be interested to know that Topor played Renfield in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu or that he did the designs for Rene Leloux's Fantastic Planet. Regardless, the screenplay for The Tenant was adapted by Polanski and his regular collaborator, Gerard Brach. Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, did the film work. Philippe Sarde wrote the score. The cast was made up of:
So, Polanski is the star, the director, and at least partially the writer on this project. One would wonder, after Rosemary's Baby
, why this didn't take off and become a major Hollywood hit. Well, one would just have to see it to find out why.
Polanski plays a little weasel of a European foreigner, Trelkovsky, who has come to the big city, Paris. He is fortunate to find an apartment in a nice building. His good fortune comes due to the fact that the previous tenant, Simone Choule, a girl around his age, tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the window into the skylight below. The rest of the movie is a slow study about Trelkovsky's mental or physical transformation (or both) into the previous tenant.
I don't want to go into the entire plot summary. In fact, I have come to hate it when movie reviewers do this as a way to fill the word requirement for their piece. Or, are they really that stupid? One can only wonder. When you've been asked to review a film and all you can do is summarize the plot of said film, are you doing the apathetic public a favor, are you just completing your assignment, or is this really the best you can do? I would say that the world of film reviewers is in far greater distress than the world of film.
Anyway, the effect of this movie is not really one of startling visuals or jump scenes: It is one of a mood and ambiance which is framed perfectly from the opening few minutes when he visits the previous tenant who wears a full body cast in traction. He is greeted by a piercing wail from the mouth hole when she sees him for the first time. The mood cycle is curved perfectly when he finds the bloody tooth in a hidden hole in the wall behind the wardrobe and discovers that the tooth is a perfect fit in his own mouth for a missing molar. The curve continues when he wanders into the buildings' bathroom to find the walls covered in hieroglyphics.
As the perfect "snake eats tail / snake dies moment" (Does the snake die before he consumes himself? Does he die with the very last bite?) approaches, he is dressed in a long, wavy brown wig with reddish highlights. He has on heavy makeup, thick blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick. His dress is a knee length floral print of yellows, greens and blacks. He wears mid-1970s black clunky platform shoes. He walks toward the window and finds that the room becomes larger and larger and he is unable to reach the handle on the window. For a while.
When speaking of the movie during the time he was making it, Polanski said:
"I think great literature is unfilmable because its real value lies in the way it's written and not what it's about. Faulkner, for example, is a great writer but there has never been a good film made out any of his novels. That doesn't mean it can't be done, just that it's impossible to render the real value of literature through a camera. Assuming you have no inhibitions about the masterpiece, how do you render in images what has been achieved by words? You are forced to be pictorially literal, or to use parts of the book as a commentary or as internal dialogue. But that's not the way. The most perfect writing is poetry, but how can you translate a poem by Baudelaire into film? All you can do is show the story of the poem, and that's not it at all."
His or her resolve unshaken after failing the first time, Polanski as Trelkovsky as Simone pulls him or herself up the stairs and gives it another try. This time he or she is successful.
"At what precise point does an individual
stop being the person he thinks he is?"