top of page

"The Tenant" (1976) 

Roman Polanski

In his third "apartment-set" psychological horror, Roman Polanski returns to the themes of isolation, paranoia and obsession explored prior in the other claustrophobically placed thrillers, such as Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). This time Polanski puts himself in front of the camera to portray the main character, 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 around him. As with Rosemary Woodhouse, and Carol Ledoux, before him, the fresh life he moves into starts to wall him in - basically placing this character in lonely confinement under the never resting eyes of the new community he is part of.

In "The Tenant" we meet up with unassuming Trelkovsky, just like we do with Rosemary Woodhouse, 8 years earlier, in "Rosemary's Baby, as both start of visiting a vacant apartment in a big city. In this case, thowever, the vibrant, young woman with aspirations of becoming a mother, joined in her apartment hunt by the charming figure of her husband, in the New York summer is substituted by a quiet bachelor in a cold, austere Paris. And, 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 presented to, as the visit occurs. The young lady 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. He sees her again shortly after, at the funeral, and becomes involved with her. However, apartment and friend are just the first connections between old and new tenants - which will become increasingly intimate.

    Isolation and paranoia are the two recurrent themes in Roman Polansky’s Apartment Trilogy. In all cases in the Apartment Trilogy, an outsider moves into an apartment that will become the setting of their mental breakdown. The dwelling place is where their rational perception starts to be challenged and fragmented. In the three instances, the new home is a confinement cell, an experimental chamber - a controlled environment that displays the fantasmagoria 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, Rosemary and Trelkovsky, all choose and move into their own private horror house. 

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”. 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 voyeristic look is not only taking place in our end. This not only connects 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 away 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. 

The amazing opening credits for "The Tenant", when the audience's eyes is immediately met by the gaze of the Peeping Tom inhabitants of the building. 

I trust it is quite valid to state this matter of identity - I'm my view not only present in this movie but in "Rosemary's Baby" and "Repulsion" as well. In "The Tenant" the name of the protagonist, Trelkovsky, points to a possibly Polish-born, naturalized French citizen. Just as Polanski, who later in his life held French citizenship, it is interesting to see the director put himself in the shoes of his protagonist. In one sequence, when reporting the fear for his safety to the police Trelkovskky is asked about his nationality. He replies he is a French citizen. However, that seems of no importance to the officers after the name he has given. 

As David Caputo analyzes in his book "Polanski and Perception": "In each of "Repulsion", "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Tenant" " the spectator is presented with "foreign bodies taking dwellings in large, Western, urban centres".

Two themes presented by the movie that are masterfully displayed in images during the sequence that leads to the climax are the idea of being watched and the feeling of being vulnerable.  The apprehension of having your every move watched over by society is a global angst in our era of digital connection and social media. However, that notion of having your intimate life watched from the outside and possibly be picked apart whether by peers, colleagues, family or fellow citizens is an understandable feeling in any small community at any given time. 

Evoking the idea of the decades-later "House on Haunted Hill" where William Castle locked together a group of people inside the so-called haunted mansion, "The Cat and the Canary" also builds a "carnival haunted house" experience to the viewer trapping all acquaintances of the dead rich owner together - checking many of the must haves in such a horror off the list: unsolved murder, a spooky governess, a lunatic on the loose from the sanatorium, the greedy characters willing to kill anyone for the fortune, oh, yes, and bodies falling from secret passages.

bottom of page