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The Tenant: Inside of A Brain


In Paris, isolated Eastern European émigré Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) rents an apartment in a spooky old building whose inhabitants regard him with suspicion and even outright hostility. When he learns that the apartment's previous tenant, a beautiful woman, tried to commit suicide by jumping out the window, Trelkovsky begins to identify with her in increasingly disturbing ways. Then, to make matters even worse, he reaches the conclusion that his new neighbors are plotting to kill him.

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a French citizen and he has a carte d'identité to prove it, but he has a foreign accent that puts off Parisian bartenders, concierges, policemen and landlords. Small boned and short—physically vulnerable — Trelkovsky seems to be aware of having put off people all his life. Thus he goes to great lengths to avoid giving offense. He dresses with care—a too-bright necktie might attract the attention of a small talkative child or of a friendly drunk. He answers the unaccountable rudeness of strangers with infinite patience.Trelkovsky exists. He inhabits his own body, but it's as if he had no lease on it, as if at any moment he could be dispossessed for having listened to the radio in his head after 10 P.M. People are always knocking on his walls.Trelkovsky, the hero of Mr. Polanski's striking new horror film, "The Tenant," is a character who might have been invented by an Edgar Allan Poe who'd had the opportunity to read about Raskolnikov and Josef K. He's a particularly Eastern European kind of late 19th-century outsider set down in contemporary Paris. He is also—by the end of the movie—something of a joke, but an entirely intentional one."The Tenant," which opened yesterday at Loews Tower East, is the most successful and most consistently authentic Polanski film in years, and in saying that I realize that a lot of people prefer the Polanski who turns out films more or less tailored to popular tastes, like "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby.""The Tenant" displays the clear-eyed narative discipline of his early "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion," but without the self-indulgent gimmickry that have made a lot of his later "personal" films, including "The Fearless Vampire Killers" and "What?", almost impossible to sit through even when the idiosyncratic talent behind them was visible."The Tenant," adapted by Gerard Brach and Mr. Polanski from a novel by Roland Topor, tells the story of the strange series of occupations that take place when Trelkovsky, a filing clerk in what appears to be a library, moves into a two-room Paris apartment made vacant by the attempted suicide of the previous tenant.The previous tenant, a young woman not yet dead, was unknown to Trelkovsky, but he makes it a point to visit her in the hospital. He is fascinated by what he sees, a body swathed in bandages, one leg in a cast, only one blackened eye and the mouth visible. He has thoughtfully brought her some oranges to suck.During this visit he also meets one of the young woman's friends, an apparently sweet but enigmatic girl named Stella (Isabelle Adjani). Leaving the hospital together, they have a drink in a bar and go to a movie where, as best as one can in a theater balcony, they make love, then part.Little by little Trelkovsky becomes convinced that the other tenants in the building have somehow been responsible for the earlier tenant's suicide attempt. The concierge (Shelley Winters) either ignores him or insults him. The landlord (Melvyn Douglas) monitors his arrivals and departures. The tenants spy on him. One night a mysterious woman (Lila Kedrova) appears at his door with her crippled daughter to report that there's a conspiracy afoot to have her kicked out of the building.Little by little, too, the other tenants force Trelkovsky, against his will, to assume the identity of the now-dead earlier tenant. One morning he wakes up in full drag, missing the tooth that the dead girl was missing. At a party Trelkovsky says to a friend with a good deal of understatement, "These days relationships with neighbors can get very complicated."Movies about madness tend to lose me after a certain point. The tension vanishes when one realizes that any absurdity, any trick, is available to the film maker. The director and his audience must share a set of rules for what passes for ordinary behavior if suspense is to be maintained. These rules do not exist in "The Tenant."That "The Tenant" works so well is because it's not strictly about madness, though that is its narrative form. It's about emotional isolation that has become physical. The forces that occupy Trelkovsky's mind were invited in by him, the outsider.The film is superbly acted by Mr. Polanski, Mr. Douglas and Miss Winters, who might not be entirely convincing as a Parisian concierge in a realistic film, but who fits into this nightmare perfectly. The French actors, including Miss Adjani, sound as if their English dialogue had been dubbed by others—not very intelligently—the result being that the performances no longer seem to be strictly their own.Mr. Polanski also has a gifted collaborator in Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer whose camera plays the role of narrator, directing our attention to curious details, offering humble asides, as 19th-century authors once felt free to do without embarrassment or excuse.

A creepy psychological thriller, “The Tenant” is one of Roman Polanski’s most underestimated pictures. Based on “Le Locataire Chimerique,” a novel by Roland Topor, the tale, co-penned by Gérard Brach, Polanski, and Roland Topor, centers on Trelkovsky (Polanski), a mysterious tenant who rents an apartment in a spooky old residential building.

Initially, his neighbors, who are all strange or recluses, treat him with suspicious contempt. Upon discovering that the apartment’s previous tenant, a beautiful young woman, jumped from the window in a suicide attempt, Trelkovsky begins an obsessissive interrogation into the life of the dead woman.

True to form, this noir thriller deals with paranoia, and, indeed, soon Trelkovsky convinces himself that his neighbors plan to kill him. He even comes to the conclusion that Stella (Isabel Adjani), the woman he has fallen in love with, is in on the “plot.”

Ultimately, Polanski assumes the identity of the suicide victim, and inherits her self-destructive urges.

Upon initial release, the movie divided critics. Some found it too tedious and horrif. Others (including this writer) see it as a companion piece to Polanski’s earlier masterpiece, Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve.

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