weekly inspiration #4: The Tenant (1976)
Isolation and paranoia are the two recurrent themes in Roman Polansky’s Apartment Trilogy. Composed by Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976), Polanski’s trilogy is an incursions into the slow detachment of a character from reality. In all of these claustrophobically placed thrillers, an outsider moves into an apartment that becomes the setting of their mental breakdown. The dwelling place is where their rational perception starts to be challenged and fragmented. In those three instances, the new home is a confinement cell, an experimental chamber - the controlled environment that displays the phantasmagoric stains left behind by previous owners. Each of the apartments is a secluded universe that offers the characters the chance of experiencing their most private fears. In other words, Carol Ledoux, Rosemary Woodhouse, and Trelkovsky, all choose and move into their own private horror house.
In his final installment of "apartment-set" psychological horrors, Roman Polanski returns to explore the obsession of a character “walled” inside his own home. This time Polanski commands things behind and in front of the camera, putting himself in the usually uncomfortable spot he reserves for his protagonists. He steps into the leading man’s shoes to portray Trelkovsky, the quiet, ordinary man, with a fragile appearance, in an unknown search for identity, who has his inner fears blown up to huge proportions by the reality that builds up around him. As with Rosemary Woodhouse and Carol Ledoux before him, the fresh start of a life he moves into begins to wall him in - basically placing this character in lonely confinement under the never-resting-eyes of the new community he becomes a part of.
In The Tenant we meet up with unassuming Trelkovsky just like we do with Rosemary Woodhouse, eight years earlier, in Rosemary's Baby, as both characters kick off the narratives by visiting a vacant apartment in the big city. In this case, however, the vibrant, young woman with aspirations of becoming a mother, joined in the apartment hunt by her charming husband in New York’s summer is substituted by a quiet bachelor in a cold and grey, austere Paris. Additionally, the soon-to-be-vacant spot Trelkovsky covets still echoes the screams of the previous owner, who has thrown herself out of the very window he is being shown to, as the apartment visit occurs. He’s told by the landlady that the young owner, who lived alone, draws her last breaths at the hospital. He decides to pay a visit to the suicidal woman and meets a close friend of hers, Stella, at the hospital. He sees her again shortly after, at the funeral, and becomes involved with her. Both apartment and friend are just the first connections between old and new tenants who occupy the apartment. As the narrative progresses, this connection becomes painfully intimate. And even though the previous owner departs dear life, her presence may not be ready to leave the apartment. Trelkovsky begins to feel her influence in his everyday actions, and, by the way the other tenants behave, he starts to believe there was a plot to eliminate her. He trusts the neighbors drove her to the suicidal attempt in the same fashion they are now plotting to drive him mad. Just like it happens with Mia Farrow’s Rosemary and Catherine Deneuve’s Carol, Polanski presents once more to the viewer a fine line inside apartment walls that divides reality and imagination. All three characters are isolated inside what has recently become their own spaces. They entered places they wish to call home, but the apartments, filled with their own histories, may not be ready to give into the young protagonists’ desires of a new life. For those places have their own agendas to follow.
A master in creating atmospheric suspense, Polanski builds up a scenario in which reality and absurd meet inside what can only be considered a nightmare. It is as if Trelkovsky was sleep deprived for way too long and the manifestations of that condition show as visual hallucinations. The problem lies on the fact he is not sleep deprived. And the visions he experiences seem to be far too connected to the apartment’s story to be dismissed as a dream. It is as if the previous tenant is sending a warning from beyond the grave.
Like majority of psychological thrillers, in order for the viewer to buy the absurd events the protagonist experiences as plausible, he/she must be connected to the character right away. Polanski is able to sell his protagonists’ state of mind in this trilogy employing the following: bringing the camera always close to the character’s face - letting the viewer inside the character’s head space at all times -, and through feeding information to the audience only through the character - they only learn what the character learns, they only see what the character sees. The formula he uses for all his protagonists makes the viewer sympathize with them and embark on their unexpected journeys. We only consider the possibility they might be going insane when the filmmaker allows so, or the character him/herself wonders about that.
I wish to analyze three main sequences that , in my opinion, sum up the downwards spiral Trekovsky goes through in his mental state/collapsing notion of reality. Those moments are the opening titles sequence, a “hallucination” seen by Trelkovsky’s eyes through his window, and the sequence that builds up to the climax (no spoilers, I promise).
In The Tenant the idea of being continuously watched and having one’s every move analyzed and judged is presented right away in the opening credits. The floating camera starts the movie in a "oner" showcasing the façade of the building, and the never resting eyes of the neighbors on the windows:
This presentation of the setting reminds the long tracking shots in the beginning of Rear Window (1954). In the same fashion as Hitchcock, Polanski uses the continuous, uncut shot to present the types that inhabit the building complex. And, as the always-moving-camera gives no rest to the audience, that is being closely watched by the tenants’ eyes, we start to experience the feeling that the voyeuristic look is not only taking place on our end - we are not the only spectators. This presentation acts in two ways: to both connect us immediately to the feeling Trelkovsky has of being watched, as it also makes the viewer sympathize with the fear he develops for his safety. The movie successfully introduces this notion right from the start, once it signals we are not that comfortably removed from the reality on screen - for the eyes that will fall upon Trelkovsky are already taking notice of us.
Polanski employs the visual artistry of master cinematographer Sven Nykvist to imprint the darkest of moods in all spaces. Paris is presented as ominous and supernatural to serve as perfect backdrop for this chilling account. The look of the film is built upon large use of natural light and motivated practicals. This “naturalistic” approach not only helps blur the line between reality and supernatural (or imagination), but also gives space to deep shadows in interiors. The elaborate use of darkness sets a haunting atmosphere. So when Trelkovsky’s hallucinations happen, they do just as part of the real world around him. The main example of this is the second sequence I wish to discuss.
Trelkovsky’s apartment gives view to a bathroom on the other side of the building complex. A jarring view per se. It is presented first to show the irony of the tenant having two unwanted outlooks for such a coveted apartment: somebody’s bathroom and the balcony a woman used to end her life. The bathroom also follows the visual recipe of moody, ghostly interiors showcased throughout the movie. The eerie view becomes a nightmarish setting when, in one of the nights Trelkovsky is looking through the window he sees the image of person all bandaged up. When he saw the previous tenant in the hospital she had her face wrapped in bandages and was missing a tooth. This time however, the dead woman stands on the window with not only her face obscured, but her entire body. As the figure acknowledges peeping-Tom Trelkovsky, it starts to unwrap the bandages showing the face of a woman. Her maniac grim is missing a tooth. The shot is presented in a way to suck the audience into Trelkovsky’s paranoid state and throw them into the reality-bending events that will take place from this point on. First, it is shown as a point-of-view shot, so the camera takes Trelkovsky’s place - the audience sees through Trelkovsky’s eyes. Second, the composition employs foreground elements and the frame within a frame tool to give distance from subject and observer. Third, this distance is compressed with the use of a zoom, that approximates viewer and subject, moving past the limiting frame of the window, and, by doing so, completing the immersion of character/audience into this paranoia:
Finally, the sequence that leads to the climax of the movie is a craning shot just like the opening credits. This time, though, the camera travels through the building complex showcasing the windows to different apartments and their inhabitants at night. And as the movement continues, the apartment balconies are transformed into those of a theater, and the residents come out to them fully dressed as if ready for a night at the opera. The main attraction is Trelkovsky, now standing at the center of the stage: his window ledge. The scene is a oner. Camerawork and production design join forces to seamlessly transform apartment building into opera house in one single, continuous take:
Thank you for reading!
Until next week... and next Inspiration!