How rude really are the French? Stereotype prevails and paints them as horrible individuals without the time of day to care for their neighbour, employee or even friend. They are, as The Tenant portrays them, snooty, loud and raucous. If we believe this is the case, then The Tenant works as a surprisingly well-formed criticism of Parisian culture. Roman Polanski directs and stars in a piece that seems to feed on the isolation and animosity found in those decrepit apartment blocks. It is rich with themes beyond this, and while this piece rounds out the “Apartment Trilogy” (not including Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, sadly), there is a feeling that Polanski is drawing from other sources of knowledge to bulk up his own, rather simplistic appearances.
Take the actual role of Trelkovsky (Polanski), for instance. He is harangued and isolated from a community he has only just moved into. It is never quite established in these early moments whether this is because of the attitude Trelkovsky possesses, or that of the inhabitants. His neighbours are horridly unconcerned for the man, offering no support when he is burgled. Is this just an infliction of Parisian culture that Polanski wishes to exhibit? It would surely be too simplistic a sentiment to draw on a pure, refined hatred for those he lived with during his time in Paris. There is a hint of Kafkaesque quality, but it is never drawn upon correctly or interestingly enough to warrant Polanski’s inclusion of such themes. Trelkovsky is very much the man out of step with the rest of the world, for no reason whatsoever.
He means no real harm, initially, and The Tenant doesn’t display any particular motive for him to dip into insanity, aside from his neighbours being a tad harsh. Perhaps it is the pack mentality. Survival of the fittest in the apartment blocks of Paris. I can’t say it was much different to my experiences living in apartment blocks, although I was not screeched at for making too much noise. Everyone was making noise; it would be hypocritical of them to suggest I keep quiet. But much is the same for The Tenant. Trelkovsky asks with a trembling voice for his neighbours to keep the noise down, and their response to this is an escalation of mood and disgust toward him. Where Polanski wishes to speak on the culture of social assimilation and apartment-living, it is key to remember that his story on the whole does not fit so well with the culture and context he conjures.
Compared to Rosemary’s Baby, the horrors here in The Tenant are grounded, steeped in an unshakeable realism with just a twinge of insanity. It is the horror of the known and tested ground, rather than the intensity of demonist cults on the floor below. It would be of fantastic impact if Trelkovsky was not embodied by a man who cannot shift himself away from underwhelming criticism of Parisian culture. Polanski at least includes the context and the horror, those two pair nicely throughout The Tenant, a film which implores its audience to trust in the slow burn of horror, and the stereotypical characterisation of Parisian culture.