Review: “The Tenant” (1976)

The Tenant, released in 1976 and based on Roland Topor’s book, is a fascinating creature. It’s entirely well done -  sharp and eerie, atmospheric, and very much worth the watch. Be warned: great camp awaits. It’s no Marnie, thankfully, but it steers deep into butt-fucking crazy land, home of Norman Bates. And more than you’d expect. What fun!

The Tenant lives up to all the hype, and then some. Its many sweeping shots of hallways, dank apartments, secret hiding spots, insides of armoires, and stifling street scenes may remind you of your first kiss, of Rosemary’s Baby, or for New Yorkers, the immersive, dark realm of Sleep No More (which runs through September, so check it out!).

Trelkovsky, an understated queer (and played by Polanski himself in a self-directed performance), rents a Parisian apartment. He’s a smooth young man, intelligent and respectful, though social. He learns almost immediately that the previous tenant (title of film!) jumped out of her window and was hospitalized. Even worse, her name was Simone. This being the seventies, we can suppose the name was more chic and less like the pixelated actress in that 2002 Al Pacino flop.

Inevitably, this being a thriller, Trelkovsky enters a deep spiral of confusion and despair. And it’s not just because Shelley Winters, as his landlord, tumbles around the set like Roseanne Barr looking for her missing paper bag of Hostess snacks. She really doesn’t do much else, which makes us pine for the days of Lolita and Poseidon Adventure.

Our hero befriends a number of supporting characters, each of whom acts in a bizarrely looping matter, as if they’re here only to show the same form of support again, and again, and again, and again… Like odd Stella (Isabelle Adjani), whom he molests in a movie theater. (Later, less interestingly, he sleeps with her.) And the doting shopkeeper, who continuously serves him the food and ciggs Simone used to love.

Darkness takes over, suffocating hero and audience alike in a palpable paranoia. There is an absolutely pants-shitting sequence involving unwrapped bandages, and suddenly it’s flashes of Mia Farrow: he feels he can’t leave his home; he feels everyone is constantly out to get him; he feels the only way to soothe his mind is by dressing up as Simone herself, make-up, dress, and all…

Honestly, The Tenant is flawless until the cross-dressing becomes gratuitous. See for yourself how outrageous he looks, talking to himself in the final act in purple polka dots and crimson lipstick. Around this point, the movie dives from seductive subtlety straight down into over-the-top low taste. The ending is also predictable, but really, it’s about the journey.

The Tenant is all about Trelkovsky’s tiny discoveries amidst the excellent set design, the period-friendly music both parts eerie and lounge, and the commendable acting all around. Even Polanski, as actor, director, and non-criminal, surprises even the most seasoned seed.

Special note for New York readers: The Woodshed Collective is staging an immersive theater production based on The Tenant starting August 10. Check out their website for more info!

RATING (OUT OF 5):

The Tenant is Rated R for psychological horror, hidden fangs in unlikely crevices, and indecipherable FrItalian accents.


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About Ross

Ross studied film at Emerson while working for indie producers, and he critiques shit from a queer POV here and @GingerBredhaus. He also produced 2015 gay horror slasher comedy YOU'RE KILLING ME and creates immersive theater in NYC.