The Tenant (1976)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski based on the novel by Roland Topor
Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, and Shelley Winters
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist
I rarely go out to the movies anymore; crowds make me anxious, I always have to pee halfway through the film, and I recently learned about the dubious ingredients used in movie theater popped corn. Nevertheless, for a film like The Tenant, I was willing to make those sacrifices; I wanted the larger image, the livelier sound. What I had forgotten to take into account was the quality of spontaneous audience response that can only happen at a live screening.
Until I was surrounded by bouts of infectious laughter in the dark, I don’t think I fully appreciated the fact that The Tenant is Polanski’s most hilarious movie to date; far more so than his ostensible “comedies” such as Fearless Vampire Killers. The Tenant has always been my favorite Polanski film because of its thrillingly unique blend of horror and comedy; until I saw the film projected, however, I had feared that the comic moments that I loved so much were moments that few people aside from myself could appreciate. I arrogantly feared that I was one of a select few capable of enjoying Polanski’s perverse sense of humor.
My fear was not without evidence. The Tenant was a critical and commercial flop following its release, and Polanski in his autobiography attributed the poor reception to an “unacceptable” change in tone which even he himself finds problematic. Needless to say, I have always disagreed with Polanski’s erroneous assessment of the film. In some ways, it might have been ahead of its time; today’s more sophisticated audiences are increasingly able to embrace complex or rapidly oscillating tones as successfully as they have begun to embrace cognitive dissonance in all its forms. Media stimulation has reached such a frenzied pace that we don’t just multitask our work projects, but emotions, attitudes, and thoughts as well. We are more experienced with the daunting prospect of holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. In this context, a psychological thriller that makes us laugh out loud is less problematic than it was back in 1976. It becomes a problem for us to relish and enjoy.
I’m always suspicious of films that are described as “comedies” because although laughter is a worthy enterprise (despite that last phrase, I swear I have a sense of humor), I go to the movies primarily to feel. Experiencing my darkest emotions through the experiences of another person makes me feel less alone. I would describe none of my favorite films as comedies, and yet all of them have made me laugh. For that reason, The Tenant makes great comedy not despite its story of urban isolation, sexual dysfunction and psychological disintegration, but because those themes ring startlingly true, rendered in such heightened relief.
Some of that tone likely comes through in Gérard Brach’s brilliant screenplay; but of course it is Polanski’s skill with actors and careful staging that brings it to life, along with the performances. Polanski is pitch-perfect as the unassuming file clerk who feels beleaguered by social situations that others might brush off, and Adjani’s fearlessly frumpy performance finds just the right balance between maternal condescension and quirky sexuality. The neighbors are played by character actors in the vein of ruthless camp and satire, but the scenes between Polanski and Adjani are both tender and volatile. I’ve never heard the lines “I love you” exchanged between two actors with such an absurd blend of sincerity and total confusion; they don’t know what they’re trying to say to each other and neither do we. The absence of logic and the feeling of conviction, the fear and the attraction and the emptiness all feel true, and so we laugh.