Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) is a film that never ceases to fascinate — and creep the viewer out. The passage of 36 years has, if anything, only increased its power. (In fact, it was underappreciated at the time of its release.) It’s not just that the story is inherently unsettling in a way that can never be quite shaken. Nor is it the fact that the film is in many ways the most personal film Polanski ever made — detailing as it does the feeling of being a Polish immigrant in Paris — though that is certainly part of it. In fact, a few years after its release I found myself discussing the film with a native Parisian, who dismissed the film as depicting something that “could never happen in Paris.” (He also told me that Rosemary’s Baby was indeed believable because things like that happen in New York all the time!) Rather than persuade me of his point of view, he actually reinforced the film’s depiction of the insular mindset at the core of the story.
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 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 astonishingly hallucinatory horrors. Indeed, I can’t think of another film filled with so many truly unsettling images.
The release of Polanski’s The Ghost Writer in 2010 brought new light to bear on the film and the obsessive nature of the filmmaker. On the surface, this political thriller seems to have no connection whatever to the older horror film, but that’s not the case at all. In the newer film, Polanski offers us another “hero” of no particular personality (Ewan McGregor’s character doesn’t even have a name) who specializes in writing things that other people put their names on. When he accepts the job of replacing the mysteriously dead secretary to an ex-prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), he finds himself being taken over by the dead man’s personality and obsessions. (There’s even an in-joke reference to bedroom slippers in the new film, echoing The Tenant‘s, “The former tenant always wore slippers after 10 o’clock.”) In other words, Polanski was still dealing with the same obsessions about the nature of identity after all those years. I suspect it is the depth of those obsessions and the worryings behind them that keep The Tenant such a powerfully disturbing work.