After scathing reviews at its original release, Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976) survived to become an underground "cult" favorite, a video-store hit. It began as a macabre short novel by French cartoonist Roland Topor, purchased for development by Paramount Pictures. Polanski petitioned Paramount exec, Barry Diller, for him to write and direct. He knew the book, and it was manifestly his kind of story. A meek bank clerk rents an apartment in a mouldy Paris building filled with perhaps-satanic weirdos: shades
of Rosemary's Baby. The clerk, insulated and paranoid, has daemonic images swirl before his eyes, like the phantoms plaguing Catharine Deneuve in Repulsion.
Polanski cast himself as Trelkowski, the Kafkaesquecog of a protagonist. For the Paris shoot, he imported Hollywood veterans, cast in inspired ways as odd-acting inhabitants of the off-putting apartment building: Shelly Winters as the hostile concierge, Melvyn Douglas as the testy landlord, and Jo Van Fleet as a spiteful neighbor. Stella, Trelkowski's love interest, was played by rising French star Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H). With oversized tinted glasses, demonstrative hair, thigh-high boots and a mini-skirt, a deglamorized Adjani resembled the 1970s Gloria Steinham!
The story: Trelkowski discovers that Simone Choule, the previous tenant of his no-frill, no-toilet flat, had leapt out the window in a suicide attempt. He's drawn to the hospital, where he finds the grotesque, dying woman wrapped up like a mummy, howling into the air. At the bedside, he meets Stella, and, in starts and stops, they have a clumsy affair. Meanwhile, the apartment building proves stultefying. If Trelkowski makes any type of noise, people bang angrily on the walls, floor, ceiling. He looks across his courtyard into windows and sees ghostly forms. Slowly, he decides that poor Simone was pushed out of the window by the the evil neighbors. They have similar plans, he believes, for his demise.
For most of his film, Polanski follows the trajectory of Topor's novel, and both versions of the story are haunting and deliciously atmospheric. (Polanski is really aided by the somber, hour-of-the-wolf cinematography of Ingmar Bergman's great cameraman, Sven Nykvist.) But the last act of the book is problematic: Trelkowski starts painting his nails and donning Sophie's clothes, which he's found in a closet. It's not very clear why he's becoming, by transference, the ex-tenant; and Polanski suddenly in high drag seems even less motivated. It's too facile to rationalize that Trelkowski is turning schizophrenic.
In his 1984 autobiography, Roman, Polanski put his finger on the problem: "With hindsight, I realize that Trelkowski's insanity doesn't build gradually enough - that his hallucinations are too startling and unexpected." There's a heavy-handed convergence of expressionism and surrealism, but, even so, The Tenant remains a treat.