1. The Other Tenants
I already wrote a lot about the main theme of all Polanski movies: the victim vs. the torturer(s) – where the latter are denied all humanity, being only monsters, agents of the pitiless order of the universe. Whether or not the other tenants in The Tenant have any independent reality, what they do when they are not tormenting him, what relationships they form, what they talk about when they are on their own, was totally irrelevant to the essence of the film; well, now we know. We even know that, after all, they have some – however imperfect – humanity.
Let me introduce them: The Longstreets, Penelope and Michael; The Cowans, Nancy and Alan. What they do in the absence of their rightful victim is, obviously enough, torturing one another. Every one of the four knows how to do it in his or her own way, every one is full of their specific kind of venom, and use their particular weapons with the subtlety or bluntness their nature requires.
The power play starts right away, and the kids’ fight we saw in the prologue is only what it is – baby squabble – comparing with these heavyweights shaking hands on the boxing ring: “Armed?..” – everyone turns, and that’s how we come to see the whole gang. This “armed” will echo later, but now everyone is ostensibly oh so happy with the compromise. Alan tries to maintain his independence by saying: “the kids haven’t got that notion [sense of community] straight yet”, but a glance from his wife makes him hastily correct himself: “I mean, our kid”. Unfortunately, a peaceful solution doesn’t really satisfy anyone here: the thirst is not quenched, and they will be back to square one, to the room that will from now on be their jail cell.
“These tulips are gorgeous!” Like in all Polanski films, the inanimate objects act their parts, and the tulips (straight from Holland) will be the axis of every scene until the very moment they fly, scattered. In the language of flowers, mind you, yellow tulips represent cheerful thoughts and sunshine.
Cheerful thoughts are the farthest possible from anyone’s mind, their contrived smiles notwithstanding. After the “armed” gag failed, Penelope is worried the other side are missing the point, and endeavors to drive it home as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
“He didn’t want to tell on Zachary. It was incredible to see this child, with no face left, no teeth…” This seemingly pointless exaggeration means she insists they fully understand the magnitude of her fair-mindedness, forgiveness, maturity and sense of community, bordering on holiness. They – themselves fair-minded, mature and full of sense of community - swallow it for the moment; but they will avenge.
Back to the room, the troops regroup, and the single winner is Alan who speaks on the phone. The others can’t find anything to say to one another, and since civilized people don’t interrupt a phone conversation, they stand like a group of statues, reflected in the mirror on the wall (another object that will fully play its part), pretending there’s nothing uneasy in their silence. Alan is the only one who is sitting – on the table. This alone would suffice to antagonize them.
Other antagonisms blossom everywhere. “So, you are telling everyone I am a writer?” reveals a shit ton of resentment festering inside this particular happy family.
“And good lord, his direction! Shooting in widescreen cinemascope, Polanski crams these people into increasingly tighter frames, teaming up the actors in elegant arrangements that visually convey the power dynamics within their relationships as the conversation turns, from moment to moment. You can watch Carnage with the sound turned off, and still understand who is winning an argument just by looking at the blocking. It’s masterful work.” (Sean Burns, of Philadelphia weekly.) Quite. Watch them standing, sitting, walking, regrouping.
Now the women are uneasy, alone in the room. An art album comes to rescue, and they peruse it, standing in fantastically uncomfortable poses. “Bacon?” – “Yes, Bacon.” “Cruelty and splendor” – “Chaos, balance”. Penelope wins this round.
“Gingerbread, fantastic!” Alan overreacts, but this won’t make up for his having comfortably sat, oblivious of them all standing - especially not after his phone rings again, and scene repeats: the ostensibly not awkward silence, the mirror, and only one winner, who is eating while talking – thus paying no due respect to the cobbler, - and, to add insult to injury, gesturing with the culinary masterpiece on the prongs of his fork. All this is as improper as dancing at a funeral, so no wonder the cremation theme creeps up. It is promptly smothered: civilized people don’t talk about cremation while eating apple and pear cobbler. They’d much rather have small talk about the difference between pies and cakes; and then it comes to light that Ethan has a gang. Now we see (if we haven’t already) that Penelope is embarrassed by her husband. Writers don’t have such husbands; bookstore assistants might. Jimmy Leach is too much for her to take, and the unseaming starts. “Why do you feel you need to slip in the word 'deliberately'?” is the first open hostility of this, second, stage of the war, and the first genuine fight comes directly after this: between the men this time. “Nobody said you should listen to my conversation” – “Nobody said you should have it under my nose”. Now the strain gets its physiological manifestation, and Nancy throws up splendidly, magnificently, uncivilly and unsubtly.
One of the critics who intensely disliked the movie but couldn’t find any real fault with it, clung to this: why didn’t she go to the bathroom? But let’s see what immediately precedes the event: “If we decide to reprimand our child, we’ll do it in our own way and on our own terms.” Pen’s husband mistakenly agrees, it’s their kid and they are free – and Penelope declares, “No, they are not free!” Here’s when Nancy begins to act irrationally. It’s just too much. First she jumps at her husband, next vomits all over the place and, naturally, right over the rest of the cobbler. And a Kokoshka album, for good measure.
Oh, Penelope will make the most of it. She will be brokenhearted over her Kokoshka, but brisk and efficient (stressed or not, she doesn’t omit to cover the bed) – as a mature human being should be after her guests have (at last! at last!) exposed themselves as crude barbarians.
“Her husband’s in the bathroom” – “He is not on the can!”; “Where’s the blow-dryer” – “He is drying his pants.” She even manage a civilized smile – but when Nancy says, “I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry” – the answer is meaningful silence. Now Penelope can afford it: they have played into her hands.
And when the Cowans are in the bathroom, cursing the cobbler, the Longstreets spray tulips with perfume, cursing, respectively, the other wife and husband: once again it’s the Cowans against the Longstreets, the latter winning by miles. But lo! One faux pas – “he calls her Doodle” – and the roles are reversed, it’s the Longstreets now that have to get all defensive, while Alan can just stand there like an implacable prosecutor, not accepting their feeble babblings. Now it’s the Cowans who have been victimized, and they will use it fully. Every word will serve as a good weapon now, this way or another. “Snitch”. “Armed”. “Gang”. The following three minutes are, in my opinion, the most perfect and the most hilarious of the whole perfect and hilarious movie, and climaxing with Michael’s “You certainly perked up since you lost your cookies”.
Then there’s a screaming Hamster Battle on the landing – no prisoners taken – and the observer appears, played by Polanski himself, in a Hitchcockian cameo appearance (he had done it once before in Frantic). Of course Penelope won’t have this; back to the perfumed tulips. Wow, the Longstreets are defending again, and the Cowans have an upper hand! The hamster is nuclear weapon in this apparently small, but essentially devastating war. Momentarily everyone gangs up on Michael, and he flies off his rocker.
And so it will proceed. Regrouping. Alliances. Hostilities. The subtle art of humiliation and insult grows less subtle with every second. Scotch creates a new alliance: men against women; Alan utters an unpalatable: “Women think too much”, then he insults her Book about Sufferings in Africa; Michael, for his part, says things about marriage, family, and kids. Cigars are offered, but things haven’t gone so horribly far as to actually smoke yet: this last bastion still stands.
Not for long, though: things escalate, the men smoke, Nancy gets ready to throw up again (“Can you stand over the bucket, please? I mean, we’re already set up to handle this now”), any word can be used as a weapon, so no wonder a weapon-word will: thumper. Once before Michael “forgot” the perpetrator’s name (“What’s his name – Zachary – “), now, at long last, Alan retaliates by calling Michael himself “Stephen”. Every little helps.
The one and only time the women form an alliance is when they laugh about the men’s pathetic attempts to save the cell phone (drowned in the tulip vase, of course), but like every alliance based on the wrong principle, it crumbles as soon as Nancy gets the second breath: “Both sides should take the blame”. – “Excuse me?!” The bag flies, Penelope triumphs: “The victim and the criminal are not the same!”
Victim and criminal; no face left, no teeth; armed with a stick; disfigured his schoolmate. Exaggeration is the most cowardly of all deadly weapons, and Polanski knows it like few people on earth do.
Nobody here deserves our pity or our compassion. Closer to the end there’s something approaching peace in the Cowan family. Why? Because the Longstreets are falling apart before their very eyes. What an ignoble cause for satisfaction.
With no genuine victim in sight, Polanski has no-one to identify with – unless it is the hamster. Homeless and defenseless as it may be, it never tortured or humiliated anyone – and is free to go, unlike those people in their makeshift dungeon.
2. Maybe We’ll Talk This Over
But why are they there, indeed? Why don’t the Cowans just leave, why don’t the Longstreets just let them go? They were already out, the compromise was reached, what brought them back?
Ah, but there’s still some issues, some dissatisfaction – nothing, of course, a good civilized talk can’t mend. Alan agreed that it would be good if the kids talked; but “talk” is not what the other side wants. Is Zachary sorry? Is he really sorry? The Longstreets feel they failed to get their point through, and there’s this shadow (aggravated by the ghost of the hamster) that neither side can afford. They can’t part on such a note, while not everything is just right, with shadows lurking and important issues hanging in the air, unresolved; doing so would mean admitting immaturity, inability to settle things like adult, cultured, fair-minded people with a real sense of community should. This is why they go back – this, not any “coffee”, however good, let alone “cobbler”.
Maybe we’ll talk this over, maybe we’ll both get sober. (Dylan)
The first part of movie is all about this pendulum: everything is more or less settled – but more or less is not enough – the point hasn’t been driven through by either side – a shadow passes – we can’t leave on this note. A word is said (“But he realizes that he disfigured his schoolmate?” - “No, he doesn’t realize that he disfigured his schoolmate.”) and everyone is back to square one, because this word is so much more than just a word: it is a sign that the pendulum is ready for another cycle. As soon as they agree on the time of the next meeting, with the kids and the due apologies, Michael deals this decisive blow: “Zachary should come over here. The victim shouldn’t be the one who makes the trip”, and this word resets everything. This is what holds them together, not the absence of reception in the elevator.
Surely now they’ll talk some more and settle everything at last. Talk is an essential achievement of civilization. Penelope is scandalized when she learns that Zachary won’t talk about “it”: “He should! He should talk about it!”, in her indignation (not talking is tantamount to flipping off everything generations of liberals have been fighting for) going just a tiny step too far, and this is when Alan really snaps at her for the first time (and a dog starts barking on the background). Now there’s no leaving. Back to the tulips.
“Coffee?” It means: let’s at last dot all the is, cross all the ts, and mend everything once and forever. Nancy smiles, nods, and prompts her husband: “Thank you”. He growls, “Coffee all right…” It means: “Ok, let’s try again.”
Later, Nancy is so shocked by her own improper behavior that she is the first to sense the flaw of the scheme, the viciousness of the circle, and moans (in the bathroom): “What the hell are we doing here?” But one can’t just puke over priceless Kokoshka and leave; so she will attack instead. After she does, the guests are clearly unwelcome; time to go?
We know by now that they will never leave. None of them will admit defeat – not only being beaten by the other side, but defeat of their civilized values, failure to “talk this over” like adult, progressive people. We can’t leave a festering sore behind us, right? We got to do something about it. One never knows when it’s time to cut one’s losses.
After the Battle of the Hamster, no further attempts to leave will be undertaken. They are all living there.
They often say that in many Polanski movies there’s one and the same essential flaw: the buildup results in nothing, and the first part of the film is a lot better than the second (Dance of the Vampires, The Tenant, Tess, The Ninth Gate, The Ghost Writer, and now Carnage). I totally agree that the first three quarters in all those cases are more promising than the final quarter. The first three quarters are elegant, brisk, “practically perfect in every respect”; then everything starts crumbling.
I wish we would step aside the conventional frame of what a movie should or shouldn’t be, and see the bigger picture. I agree that Polanski sacrifices entertainment quality and formal perfection, and I am sure he is doing it on purpose (indeed, he has proved enough times that he can make a totally perfect film). In the last quarter, everything deteriorates – because it does. Ultimately, the slippage of the universe must be reflected in a work of art that endeavors to honestly depict it, and it’s the highest self-denial from the part of the creator, who refuses a possible rounding up, fulfillment of every promise, catharsis and everyone’s total satisfaction, in favor of showing how exactly everything loses momentum, slips away, gets bogged down, stalls, loses coherence, dies. These people won’t have anything resembling a closure. They are stuck there, with their doomed attempts at breaking the walls of their prison with inadequate tools.
Their tools aren’t inadequate because they are “only words”: there’s nothing as powerful as words. No, their tools are inadequate because the words they use are dead.
“It’s so much better than getting caught up in this adversarial mindset… Luckily, some of us still have a sense of community”
Modern psychology played a dirty practical joke on the formerly glorious English language; there’s nothing that can’t be labeled nowadays. One always knows what syndrome one has, what exactly one is going through (midlife crisis or liberating experience), how to define that elusive feeling one is afraid to call “love” (significant other), what other people are like (controlling, manipulative; compliant, avoidant), how to avoid caring and loving (not ready for commitment) or to justify one’s behaving like a total jerk (uninhibited; positive). Everything is put into its cell, given a name that seems to mean something; then, insidiously, people start living up to these words. They don’t only know what they are feeling – they know what they are supposed to feel or to be. Inevitably, they feel – and are – exactly what is expected of them. Every feeling, every experience is unique; but they get reduced to a common denominator – and so do personalities themselves.
“If Zachary sees Ethan in a punitive context, I really don’t see anything positive coming out of that.”
“I am living with this totally negative person”.
“We all have to be collectively concerned”.
But when even the slightest shit hits the fan, none of this works. And if the whole universe was based on those empty words, the whole universe falls apart – as soon as the slightest shit hits the fan.
They, these pathetic painted sepulchers, have lost their living souls in this drivel, the rigmarole of superficial values reducible to hollow words.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. (Matthew 23:27)
I’ve just watched Polanski’s interview of May ’86, where he is asked what he hates most in people. “L’hypocrisie”, he says, “Fausseté. Mensonge.” Hypocrisy. Falsity. Lie.
Everyone who tries to fit his unique humanity into a prescribed cell, betrays himself and turns into a false lying hypocrite. There’s nothing easier – and cheaper - than care about the Darfur tragedy. “I know everything about suffering in Africa. I’ve been thinking about it for months”. When her husband, having learned from the bitter experience, tries to warn Alan not to start her on this, she physically attacks him – the first, and almost the only, outburst of actual violence in the film. (“Talk about commitment to world peace and stability,” – Alan).
Don’t think it’s only Penelope. Nancy, a much simpler soul, hasn’t learned all these words yet; but what Alan does is only turning them around, never really leaving the same vicious circle. His cynicism and Penelope’s demagogy are the heads and tails of the same coin. They are all confined inside the same cell, just as well as they are all confined in that room: Penelope is born and raised there, Nancy trying to fit in; the men both pretending they are different.
“My wife dressed me up as a liberal… but I am just a short-tempered son of a bitch,” says Michael (to which Alan, expectedly, replies, “We all are”). “I am not being aggressive, I am being honest”. But there can’t be any honesty there, not ever: it’s either hypocrisy or its flipside, aggression. Some critics suggested that Alan is honest in his own cynical way, but honesty is so much more than telling people nasty things in their faces. You either stay in the cell, or cling to its walls from the outside, attacking the ones who are inside, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. Nobody takes a step aside, where the frightening land of honesty, truth, genuineness and integrity is rapidly becoming untrodden.
“You’re blowing this out of proportion,” yells Michael at Penelope. Interesting that this peacemaking sentence is the first someone here actually shouts. “Enough with this politically correct bullshit,” he says, only to replace it with the bullshit that is only the illegitimate son of this same political correctness. “I feel like being openly despicable”: he has made the same career of this as his wife of being “advocate for civilized behavior”. There’s no essential difference. The only genuinely honest sentence was uttered by Nancy: “I am glad my son kicked the shit out of your son!”
Well, yes, this is honest; but really, people? When you stop lying, this is the only kind of honesty that’s left? Is this why the political correctness was invented – because without it you’ll smash the world to pieces? Or is it the other way – the words have poisoned your minds, emptied your souls, turned you into zombies, and the only hope for human race is that your kids will refuse to use your poisonous words, and either go back to the old ones, or will have to invent a whole new language, where killiskiss.
4. People in Glass Houses
Careful what you say! You say “these two little shits” as a figure of speech, and mother, in all seriousness, says tragically “So, Ethan is a shit now!” Watch your tongue, watch your steps, watch your everything – people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones.
Well… what else can’t they do? Move furniture, hang pictures, dance, sing high notes? Snore? Sneeze? Talk? Whisper? The walls are not getting any more solid, and the number of taboos grows exponentially.
Why the fuck did they choose to live in a glass house anyway?
Which is the hen, which is the egg? Have we bound ourselves in this web because otherwise the beast will get loose from inside us, and demolish our precious glass house? Or have we deliberately refused to build the house of solid bricks, to deal with our problems openly, and thus nurtured the beast which grows stronger with every new ban imposed? Irony and pity, humor and open talk, honesty, love and courage, - when exposed to all this, the beast decays, it’s our hypocrisy, pettiness and cowardice that feed him.
“So many parents just take their kid’s sides, acting like children themselves”. If only. No, guys, while you are entrapped in that room with no way out, your children have made up and are playing together on that same playground.
Because the kids haven’t build their own glass houses… yet.