Though most point to Rosemary’s Baby as proof of Roman Polanski’s genius, in actuality his finest film may well be the one that got a much harsher critical reception upon its initial release. The Tenant was decried by Roger Ebert as ‘an embarrassment’ when it was released in 1976, and indeed it took decades for the film to finally find its’ audience. But here’s the thing: not only is The Tenant not an embarrassment, it’s a cinematic triumph; a woozy paranoid fantasy that assaults the very limits of the self, and questions humanity’s obsession with the idea of the definable personality.
Much of the critical ire was initially directed at Polanski’s decision to cast himself in the lead role as the meek and timid Trelkovsky, a man who rents an apartment that once belonged to a woman who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. And though it’s true that Polanski is a director first and an actor second, he suits the role of Trelkovsky to a tee. He adds a jittery uncertainty to the role, and indeed his shortcomings as an actor – his lack of confidence, for example – only reinforces the believability of Trelkovsky’s anxious demeanour.
His work as a filmmaker is on par with anything else he has ever done. Even the film’s opening credit sequence chills, provoking as it does a very genuine sense of unease. Polanski frames the apartment block itself as the movie’s true antagonist, and indeed its almost mythic unpleasantness outshines the mundane narkiness of Shelley Winter’s concierge, or Isabelle Adjani’s Stella, a femme fatale if there ever was one.
At its heart, The Tenant is a dissection of what makes us who we are. It explores how we define ourselves as human beings: our obsession with the places we live; the food we eat; the things we own. Trelkovsky’s transition from mild mannered pushover into a screechy, paranoid type is marked by alterations in what he smokes and the drinks he orders. He determines his personality by the things he spends money on, and when he discovers that these parameters of self are illusory, he begins to realise there is nothing to stop him from becoming another person – or indeed gender – entirely.
The film is filled with startling setpieces, perhaps the most shocking of them all the discovery of a small hole in the wall behind a wardrobe. The contents of the hole would seem strikingly mundane in any other circumstance, but Polanski injects a genuinely chilling sense of unease into the proceedings. It’s a terrifying scene, and one that is precisely so terrifying because we rationally understand that it shouldn’t be.
The Tenant is a masterpiece, albeit an uneasy one. It is a chiller in the truest sense of the word; a film with the power to make the skin crawl; to fill the night with paranoid visions and to unsettle even the light of the day.