Well, there are some quite sensible reviews at Rotten Tomatoes (the tomatometer shows 90% for The Tenant, which makes me very very happy… of course it shows 100% for Chinatown, but while Chinatown is much easier to swallow, I personally love The Tenant a lot more), and they speak a lot about alienation, loss of identity, urban paranoia and mental disintegration; all of this is correct, so I will dwell only on one important aspect, consisting however of three parts.
The easiest discernible thing is that the movie is about the impossibility for an individual to win against a group – and from this point of view The Tenant is quintessential for all Polanski’s oeuvre, where this motif is clearly one of the most important. This is, basically, what Rosemary’s Baby is about – if a group wants you or your baby, they will have you or your baby, because they are together and you are alone. It doesn’t really matter whether they are Satanists, politicians (The Ghost Writer), business (Chinatown), crooks (Oliver Twist) or the residents of a tenement, - they might as well be a macramé lovers club, anyway they are a collective entity, thus invincible, and represent the total invincibility, invulnerability of the intrinsically inimical universe. Any group of people are, in fact, emissaries of that basic hostility of the world towards individuals; if you ever lived under a Communist regime, your perception of the fact is keener, but the same is true for all societies.
Whatever the tenant might do to preserve his sanity won’t work. He is trying to play by their rules, which is impossible by definition, – “they” are out to get him for no other reason than because they can (that’s the most important point and I’ll get back to it later). These attempts are wonderfully graphic, when he mimics the turning of the key to help the concierge, startles and glances at his watch when the bereaved lover grieves too loudly, etc, etc, or in that staircase scene, where he is holding these bags full of garbage, dropping stuff, - and trying his best to favorably impress the landlord who is standing there, lecturing him on these very rules that are beyond complying, because they are fully known only to those who make them: see, later an activist will come to petition against the unspeakable Madame Gaderian who “does her washing up in the middle of the night and whistles at the same time”. Ok, we’ll agree that “a civilised person” doesn’t do that. Ok, they say, “the former tenant always wore slippers after ten o'clock, it was much more comfortable for her… and for the neighbours,” – and the tenant will too walk about in slippers, but you know, it didn’t save the “former tenant” from flinging herself out of the window. It won’t save the present tenant, either.
To guess the rules is impossible, to comply to them unconceivable. (“Tomorrow's Sunday. It's reasonable to have company on a Saturday evening.” – “No, monsieur. It's not reasonable to make such a racket, even on a Saturday evening!”) To rebel is disastrous. Epitaph by the Concierge: “And we just finished repairing the roof!” RIP.
The only possible solution could be to flee – like Szpilman the Pianist did – but the nazi were not after Szpilman alone, they were after millions of people, so the odds were that they could lose one, some time. When the group is after you alone, you have no hope, and the tenant, a miserable creature, knows it beforehand – unlike Rosemary who at least tried... and failed. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown – in a lot more senses than the political one.
I have just mentioned The Pianist, and here we’re coming to the essence. Polanski says, I quote:
“One question is always asked whenever the "Final Solution" comes up: Why did the Jews allow themselves to be slaughtered during World War II? Why weren't they aware, from the outset, of what was in store for them; why didn't they grasp the truth earlier and rise en masse against their oppressors?
The main reason why their apprehensions were only gradualy and belatedly aroused was that the Holocaust had yet to come. It was outside any known frame of references. Pressures built up slowly and did not at first seem more than mildly threatening. The Germans' method was to lull people into passivity, to foster a sense of hope, to persuade the Jews that things couldn't possibly be that bad.
My own feeling was that if only one could explain to them that we had done nothing wrong, the Germans would realize that it all was a gigantic misunderstanding.”
The last sentence offers the key to all his creation as I see it.
Like all other Jews there, and many other people elsewhere, he learned all too soon that nothing could be explained “to them”, and that no explanation mattered anything.
Like anyone else, I read me some psychology… It looks like if someone had to suffer really big-time for a really long time as a child, - especially with nobody to complain to - it might lead to a specific pathology, namely, that the person in question gets this belief, deeply ingrained in his – whatever you call it – subconscious – I’d prefer to call it soul, - that anything can be done to him. Anything. Because “they” can, and thus “they” have the right. I forget now what “syndrome” it is called, but it is clearly the case.
The main Polanski theme is the relationship between the victim and the torturer(s), where he invariably and strongly identifies himself with the victim. He explores the limits – how far can both sides go? Both, that’s the point – apparently, the victim should do something? What is the irresistible attraction of victimhood, and why would people let themselves be tortured by other people?
You may have noticed that in a Polanski movie nothing ever comes as a surprize. Whatever emotions the protagonist – or the audience – may experience (horror, shock, repulsion, despair), it is never surprise. There’s nothing to be surprised at, everything, anything is in the order of things, that’s how the world works. The world can turn this ugly, surreal, sadistic side against you at any moment, just because it can, and there’s no room for surprise, because the victim knows “they” are entitled to do to him as they please.
It takes its roots from the rational insanity of the Krakow ghetto, with its slow, gradual descent into hell – and from other experiences better left untold. “If only one could explain to them that we had done nothing wrong” – if only we do as we’re told – if only we do not aggravate them – if only we behave the way they want us to… remember that woman in The Pianist who asked, “Where will we be taken?” – she did her best to make her question sound as innocent, as unobtrusive as possible, she was smiling that miserable, fawning, willing-to-please smile, and was shot on the spot, just because. Because the officer could. There’s no way to please, no way to placate, no way to make the world less cruel toward you, they torture – you suffer, and this is the aspect of human existence Polanski has been exploring for fifty years by now, by means of tragedy, comedy, macabric grotesque, drama, horror, costume romance, any means accessible.
The theme was declared full-scale since the very start, even before Knife in the Water, where it is of course developed. I strongly recommend that you watch his 1961 court-metrage called Le Gros et le Maigre (The Fat and the Lean; can be found on YouTube, in two parts), which may be considered an epigraph to everything that came later. Throughout the story the victim (played by Polanski himself, just like in The Tenant, - typical) is only too happy with anything he has to endure, falling on his knees and kissing the oppressor’s hands at the slightest pretext. Watch it, really, it is perfectly made, funny, surreal, with both visual and musical solutions absolutely marvelous; in a word, fascinating … well, dangerously so. Its abysmally dark ending provides such insight into the depths of human soul – the victim’s soul, mind you, not the torturer’s (who generally is of lesser interest) – that the whole grotesque comedy makes me shudder. It is really, truly… er, upsetting. Disturbing. (These are, I noticed, the two words most often used when people talk about Polanski movies.)
That’s the most important message of The Tenant –the world doesn’t look like that because the tenant is paranoid, no, the man is driven crazy because the world is like that, even if it might look different than it does to other people as the tenant descends down the steps of his insanity. Sanity or insanity of the viewer only changes the appearance, not the substance. They could drive him insane, so they did it. And he lets them, that’s the thing, his last Gauloises-versus-Marlboro rebellion but a token gesture of a despaired man trying to keep the pathetic scraps of his dignity. He lets them, because they have the right to subject him to anything they like, and there will never be the “right” way to behave. Only escape is [sometimes] possible, but the tenant is far too fascinated with his own victimhood to undertake any decisive steps (except a brief visit to Stella, only to learn that things are the same everywhere), much like his female counterpart in Repulsion was much too fascinated with what the fabric of existence was doing to her.
The last constituent of the same theme is, of course, the observers.
You’ll never be allowed to die off quietly, no, you’ll be dragged outside and put in the pillory for everybody’s entertainment.
In the darkest, morbidest visionary scene, the girl shouts, “It’s him!” and points.
In the hospital room, when Simone Choule starts screaming, there’s a party at the next bed, the visitors and the visited eating, pouring wine, - and they all stare, it’s a beautiful shot, like a family picture (and the tenant momentarily tries to placate them with a miserable everything-s-all-right crooked smile). A man in the cinema sourly, intently watches the tenant and Stella making out. The Concierge is ubiquitous. The final vision of them all standing in the windows, sitting on the roof having a picnic, all applauding is, of course, a hallucination of a sick mind, but when they really come out of their houses, looking – well, normal – they are really no different from what we just saw. The same eagerness to see as much of the victim’s blood, misery and disgrace as possible attracts the neighbors in Repulsion (besides the last scene where they all crowd there, please pay attention to the neighbor who looks through the open door when her young man came to see her)… remember the Japanese taking pictures in Rosemary’s Baby? In The Pianist, a Polish neighbor – what’s that to her? – will shout, “It’s a Jew!!!”.
There’s no way out. They will stare, they will do to you as they please, and there’s no way to placate them, ever, amen. As the Concierge says, “You only have yourself to blame.” (and later, when the tenant is brought there after the car accident, her enthusiastic reaction is, “What did he do now?!” and then, to Monsieur Zy, “See? It’s him again!”; also look at the opening scenes, how everything he says to the Concierge or Monsieur Zy is wrong.) You certainly are to blame, because the world, for its irrational reasons, singled you out as a culprit. As the victim. Lump it. Or like it.