Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Reel Deal: The Tenant, 1976, Dir. Roman Polanski (or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Madman)

Few filmmakers have enjoyed such success and infamy in equal measure as Roman Polanski. His notorious past is well documented, and was splashed across the headlines again recently when he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 and faced extradition to the United States to face criminal charges for the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977.

This unavoidably horrible act, for which he remains unpunished, has stained his reputation ever since (although it has not stopped him from continuing to work with some of the best of Hollywood's talent), and informs, however invisibly, the critical response to his work. But there is no film he has made up to this point to which this episode in his past seems more relevant than the film he completed in the previous year, The Tenant. Dismissed upon its release, it is still often neglected in the official history of Polanski's career. In some respects it's easy to see why: it's not an obvious and timeless masterpiece like Chinatown or an impeccable exercise in arthouse thrills like Knife in the Water and Rosemary's Baby; it's a flawed and supremely odd work in that unmistakeably 70s mould of auteur cinema, but nevertheless it is one of his most interesting films.

The story, or what there is of one, concerns a lonely, unprepossessing bachelor named Trelkovsky, played by Polanski himself, who moves into a dingy apartment in Paris only to discover that the previous occupant, Simone, tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the window. When he visits the broken woman in hospital, where she lies bandaged from head to foot except for her eyes and yawning, ghastly mouth, she screams chillingly at the sight of him. Shortly after, he learns that she has succumbed to her injuries and died. Drawn into disputes over anti-social noise between his neighbours, and himself accused of disruptive behaviour, his mind starts to fray, paranoia sets in, and he starts to believe that the other tenants want him to adopt the persona of the dead woman he has replaced so that they can drive him to the same nasty end.

That The Tenant is one of Polanski's most autobiographical works would seem obvious from the fact that he cast himself in the lead role. A very demanding role at that, given that for large parts of the film he is the only person onscreen, and is called upon to convey charm and innocence giving way to burgeoning hysteria, or possibly even insanity. But the eeriest thing about the movie, watching it now all these years after its release, is that it seems almost to predict Polanski's subsequent fall from grace and offer a complex insight into its creator's conflicted mind. The story is a fiction, of course, and yet the drama bleeds out into reality and the future past, becoming a confession, a psychological memoir, and even a narcissistic attempt at self-exoneration.

On the one hand, Polanski portrays himself as the victim of a communal persecution. It is at least in part a film about the way that groups impose identities upon others so as to control, ostracise, and even destroy them. Trelkovsky begins to suspect that everyone who lives in or near the apartment building wants him to behave like Simone. When he goes to the local cafe, the owner insists on providing him with the same order that his predecessor would always enjoy there.

Although it's never made explicit, the ghosts of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of both of Polanski's parents and forced him to masquerade as a Catholic child to avoid deportation, are ever present. The film may nominally be set in 70s Paris, but the architecture of the apartment block where most of the film takes place could easily have existed during the Occupation. And like low-rent Nazis, the busy-body neighbours in the building appear to target those who are obviously different: Trelkovsky because of his outsider status, and a female neighbour because of her disabled daughter. What's more, authority figures that he encounters repeatedly tell him that he's not French, despite his protestations that he is a citizen of that country. The implication is that he cannot be French to them, because he is Jewish.

On the other hand, Polanski does go some way towards an admission of guilt for his character's predicament. It's frequently hinted that Trelkovsky's suspicions, or at least the more outlandish ones, are figments of his overheated imagination, and the film gives us the option of inferring that these phantoms, if that's what they are, might stem from his uneasy conscience.

There is one scene in particular that has increased significance for viewers today. When Trelkovsky impulsively visits the funeral service for Simone, he sees the young and pretty, disabled daughter of his neighbour staring at him with an accusatory expression. The priest begins to lecture the congregation about the corruption of the flesh and its ultimate mortality; Trelkovsky becomes so distressed, so choked by an unnameable fear, that he immediately flees. The film suggests that our protagonist is in need of redemption, and that he is unwilling to confront it, although what exactly it is would have been unknown in 1976. Now we know all too well.

In the remarkable last act of The Tenant, Trelkovsky fully embraces his identity as Simone, purchasing a woman's wig, wearing her dresses and applying her makeup. Finally, he re-enacts her fate. Lying in the same hospital bed where he once met Simone for the first and only time, he looks up and sees his earlier self looking down at him, and starts to scream. What are we to make of this? Is Polanski dramatising the impossibility of the consciousness's flight from itself? Is he making the pessimistic argument that the mind's torment that it must be precisely one person instead of another is one of the unavoidable tragedies of life? If so, this could be read as an all-too-easy means of evasion by Polanski, cynically using the atrocities of 20th century history as a glib and unconvincing explanation for his personal failings.

But ultimately it is this confusion of purpose that makes the film fascinating: as a peek through the looking glass of a fractured, solipsistic and restlessly creative mind - as a portrait of the artist as a young madman, it remains indelible viewing.

Here's the enjoyably corny trailer: