The Tenant

Movie Information

In Brief: Roman Polanski's 1976 psychological horror film about a Polish immigrant (Polanski) losing his own personality to that of the woman who previously lived in his apartment (and who committed suicide by throwing herself out of the window) may well be the director's best film. It is certainly his creepiest -- and made all the more so when you realize its story is both personal and obsessive.
Genre: Psychological Horror
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters
Rated: R

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.

I cited that story when the film last played locally and also noted, “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.”

While all that still seems like a valid assessment to me, something happened in the meantime that brought new light to bear on the film and the obsessive nature of the filmmaker—namely the release of his The Ghost Writer in 2010. 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.

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Tenant on Thursday, June 7, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “The Tenant

  1. Me

    This is one Palanski film ive always wanted to see but its been unavailable. Ive always had the sneaking suspicion that it is one of his underrated masterpieces.

  2. Dionysis

    “…its been unavailable.”

    Actually, it is available. While the price of a new DVD has jumped up (I paid $6.99 for my copy bought 5 years ago), a used copy in excellent condition can be purchased for as little as $5.00; a new copy will cost over $40!

  3. Ken Hanke

    I bought it when it new for $7.95, and a few years ago it was going for $5 in the WalMart dump bin.

  4. Dionysis

    I’m not sure how smart it is to see the prices of DVDs soar like some have; sales of DVDs and CDs have been on the decline for a while now, and with so much content available on-line, it’s hard to see that much of a market still exists for exhorbitantly priced discs.

    And the artists and others who actually make the films don’t benefit from this either.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I suspect there are still enough people who want to have the actual product in hand to keep it going. Goodness knows, I wish I’d disposed of my laserdisc of YELLOW SUBMARINE when it was a big deal because it had been recalled. Now that you can get a more complete version on Blu-ray for $17, it’s basically worthless.

  6. Dionysis

    “…I suspect there are still enough people who want to have the actual product in hand to keep it going…

    Oh, you are certainly correct. I prefer to have the actual product as well, but only up to a point. I’ve seen out-of-print movies (oddly enough, especially obscure ‘B’ or worse films) going for hundreds of dollars (or more). Now that doesn’t mean they sell, but they are sure priced way up there.

    “Goodness knows, I wish I’d disposed of my laserdisc of YELLOW SUBMARINE when it was a big deal…”

    I feel your pain. I once owned about 2,000 (+ or -) laserdiscs, and sold them while they still had some value. Of course, titles that had not been released on DVD (at that time) were copied on DVD-R first then sold (which I believe you did too). I made out pretty well, actually.

    I did the same thing with vinyl record albums years before when I transitioned to CDs. Timing is important.

  7. Ken Hanke

    The question has always been whether or not anyone was actually paying those prices. At one point KR’s Salome’s Last Dance was priced as high as $350, but I don’t know anyone who paid that. Of course, I tend to know hardcore Russellphiles, all of whom bought the DVD as soon as it appeared. Now, if someone would put it out again in an anamorphic 1.85:1 version as opposed to the old full-frame disc, I’d buy it again.

    Oh, yes, I copied the lasers, but then I just put them back on the shelf — theoretically as back-ups to the transfers. Interestingly, they’re finally working on bringing out Lisztomania on DVD, and I got an e-mail asking me what the color scheme was in the opening scene. Seems the original elements had degraded so that the basically blue scene had gone pink. They had to go back to the master for the laserdisc for a guide.

  8. Orbit DVD

    I don’t know if Me lives in Asheville, but if he does he should stop by my shops more often.

    Could be my favorite Polanski film… a favorite out of many favorites.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Its not on Netflix or Hulu and im not buying a film i haven’t seen.

    But you pay more than $5 for movies you’ve never seen every time you go to the movies. Of course, you could come see it tonight for free.

  10. Me

    I live about an hour away. $2 dollars i would definitely buy it without seeing it first for that price.

  11. Simone Choule

    The dubbing is intentional to add to the alienation, frustration, & absurdity. He comments on it within film when Trelkovsky & Stella go see Enter The Dragon….

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