Article published in Newsline.
A lifetime of persecution has shaped Roman Polanski’s art. The death of his pregnant mother in Auschwitz, the brutal slaughter of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family, and a 40-year-long-running conviction for an unlawful liaison with an underage girl have, in essence, all found their way into his work, in the most sinister themes of victimisation.
What is less commented on, however, is the kind of sensibility he brings to his films – one that is quintessentially non-American and unlike anything else in Hollywood cinema.
The eerie soundtrack to the opening sequence of Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) sets the stage for the paranoia that runs through the film, laced with the director’s trademark black humour. Polanski plays Trelkovsky, a Polish-French bachelor who moves into a creaky-floored Paris apartment, the previous tenant of which had flung herself from the window. There is something odd about the building and its eccentric inhabitants, but we cannot quite put our finger on it. The previous tenant is still alive and hospitalised, albeit in critical condition after her attempted suicide, and Trelkovsky is disturbed that his rights of passage into a potential new home depend on her demise. The concierge reassures Trelkovsky, “don’t worry, she won’t get better.”
We see the world through Trelkovsky’s eyes; his timid nature often results in him being overpowered or bullied into submission. The cinematography of Sven Nykvist – known for his collaboration with director Ingmar Bergman – is instrumental in the portrayal of this hostile world, in which the protagonist suspects that elaborate conspiracies are being hatched against him. And like in other Polanski thrillers, we reassure ourselves by clinging to the hope that these far-fetched suspicions are a figment of his imagination.
Everything in the film stems from Trelkovsky’s apparent persecution complex. We are uncertain whether the events that unfold are real or a result of his paranoia, as the narrative increasingly blurs the line between the two. Trelkovsky is convinced that those with whom he shares the building are trying to drive him to commit suicide, like they did the previous tenant.
There is an iconic scene that gives us a taste of Trelkovsky’s state of mind and which seems to confirm his worst fears. Awakening from slumber, he looks out the same window from which the last tenant had leapt to her death, and finds the residents of his block, along with his friends (“they’re all in it together”), seated in the courtyard like they were at an opera house, watching a performance. One of them – posing as the victim and wearing a mask printed with Trelkovsky’s face – is about to receive a lynching after having been rounded up with pitchforks. But once they all spot Trelkovsky at the window, they excitedly anticipate that he will jump from it – and which to them would be the ‘climax’ of the show. This is Polanski humour at its darkest.