About 30 years ago I had an interesting conversation with a Frenchman who insisted that while Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1969) was perfectly believable, his The Tenant (1976) was simply preposterous. The reason behind this was simple: “Well, things like that happen in New York, you know, but in Paris this just isn’t possible.” Personally, I have some reservations about the son of Satan being born in the Dakota Apartment building on a regular basis, but the attitude of the Frenchman actually does much to make The Tenant more believable rather than less. Though the story of an immigrant (Polanski) being driven insane as he gradually transforms into the previous tenant of his overpriced Parisian apartment has a certain affinity to Polanski’s earlier film Repulsion (1965), the core of The Tenant is about the casual persecution of a foreigner in a strange land for no other reason than the fact that he is a foreigner. More, it’s about the immigrant’s own perception of what’s being “done to him,” since it may not be being done at all, and exists only in the darkest recesses of his own mind.
Whatever the case, The Tenant gets my vote as the most disturbing film Polanski has ever made. Despite the technical drawbacks inherent in international casting (some of the voice dubbing is very bad), the film is among Polanski’s best works—with a creepiness that seeps right into your bones and never lets up. His nightmare vision of the apartment building as an almost living and completely malevolent entity remains unmatched by anyone in its astonishing hallucinatory horrors. Indeed, I can’t think of another film filled with so many truly unsettling images.