Thursday, 9 December 2010

Roman Polanski's 'The Tenant', 1976

Fig. 1 The Tenant poster.
The Tenant is a stirring neurotic thriller about the main character, Trelkovsky, moving into a sinister new apartment. He gradually descends into madness, believing that his neighbours are trying to turn him into the previous tenant who tried to kill herself by jumping from its window.

Fig 2. Trelkovsky's apartment.
There are many aspects of this film that make it so unsettling to the audience, one of which is the environment. His home made unhomely and unsafe.  The apartment itself is very small, consisting of only two rooms with no bathroom and one large ominous window.  Halina Stephan stated that "The environment seems even more ominous from the perspective of the film's viewers, who have seen, during the opening credits, an image of a woman standing at an apartment window which dissolves into an image of Trelkovsky standing at the same window...It is hard to understand this opening as anything other than a foreshadowing of Trelkovsky's own suicide" (Stephan, 2003:290).  The opening credits are very effective in indicating to the audience that these apartments are hiding things behind their many windows, things that will later work their way into defenceless Trelkovsky and lead to him losing his grasp on reality.  The window is incredibly foreboding due to its dominance over the tiny room he lives in, thus creating an unsettling atmosphere in what should be the character's home and his place of rest.  Katarzyna Marciniak observed that "the apartment itself is not a static place of comfort that we might associate with the idea of home; in an eerie way, it becomes an almost living organism that envelops, tortures, and consumes the protagonist" (Marciniak, 2006:103)  This is supported by the looming window and by the claustrophobic atmosphere within many of the scenes, whether they're located in his tiny apartment, as in Figure 2, or elsewhere in his apartment building.

Fig 3. Trelkovsky trapped in shadow.
One example of this claustrophobic atmosphere outside of his apartment is seen when the character speaks to his landlord, as shown in Figure 3.  In this scene, Trelkovsky appears trapped by the shadow from the banister opposite him.  This gives the impression that he is becoming ensnared by the building, that it wants to keep him confined there, enclosed in his apartment. Marciniak described that it is "the horror of enclosed spaces that create an intense mood of claustrophobia."(Marciniak 2006:103)  These confines and restraints symbolised by the use of shadow all add to the horror of Trelkovsky's gradual fall into madness.  Another interesting observation that Marciniak made it that "the insistence on creating and sustaining the claustrophobic horror of stifling space becomes a way to express the painful suffocation created by social oppression and ostracism that the foreigner endures in a new culture."(Marciniak 2006:103).  It is often indicated within the narrative that Trelkovsky may be a French citizen but is not French himself.  The audience then establishes him as a foreign person to the city and, due to this, he will therefore suffer some feelings of alienation.  The shadows can then also be interpreted as a metaphor for the social bars he's held behind due to his foreign origins.

Fig. 4 Trelkovsky becoming the previous tenant.
It is this ostracism and alienation that he feels that leads with his difficulty in distinguishing his own sense of self.  He tries to blend well with his neighbours but has to avoid his friends to do so and to increase his relationship with his friends he ends up offending his neighbours.  Trelkovsky is in a losing situation, because he's constantly bouncing between being social at work and being quiet and confined when at home he struggles to find his middle point and gradually becomes consumed by the weight of both. Michael Richardson believed that "His desperate need to assert his own identity paradoxically causes him to lose a sense of his identity so that he gradually identifies himself with the previous tenant in the flat" (Richardson, 2006:147). Due to the flat still being furnished with the personal effects of the previous tenant and his drinking, smoking and sitting the same way she did in the local cafe means his association with her is much easier.  Richardson goes on to say that "His surroundings thus increasingly come to consume him, causing him to collapse into them, unable to distinguish what he is from what is around him." (Richardson, 2006:147) Her belongings, combined with the claustrophobic atmosphere makes the character unable to identify anything as his and thus becoming the previous tenant both in personality and appearance.
Fig. 5 Trelkovsky beginning to lose his mind.

Though it is the culmination of his restraint from identifying himself combined with a little 'cabin fever' from his confined apartment that the audience sees as breaking him mentally there are other elements that added to the deterioration of his sanity.  Throughout the narrative the audience is shown the neighbours from Trelkovsky's point of view, and because of this they see them as highly strung and overly sensitive to the actions of other tenants.  This leads to their inquiry into Trelkovsky and his apparent disruptive behaviour.  Due to the audience following his point of view they know when he was not in his apartment, but there were times tenants complainted of noise when it could not have been him that made it.  Richardson explained that "in The Tenant, the conspiracy against trelkovsky is on the part of the other tenants, if it isn't a construction of Trelkovsky's mind." (Richardson, 2006:147)  The audience are lead to believe that the tenants are conspiring against Trelkovsky because they never side with him, even when something clearly was not his fault.  Therefore, when he finally does lose his mind the audience becomes unsure as to whether there was ever a conspiracy at all, or whether his paranoia and alienation lead to this assumption.  The Tenant's climactic ending consists of Trelkvosky becoming so consumed by his new identity that he even follows the previous tenant's suicide attempt.  Jason Horsley explained this as"Trelkovsky, a meek, timid, cowardly man who passively submits to the hostile forces of his life until he is reduced to a twisted caricature of himself, a broken doll." (Horsley, 2009:137)  He becomes very much a broken doll as he lays motionless on the ground after his jump from the window.  With rouged lips and nails, a pale complexion, floral dress and large black heeled shoes he lays still, twisted and broken, thrown away like an unwanted doll.  A victim of persecution from his neighbours or from his own neuroses, the audience will never be sure but the image they are left with is certainly disturbing.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The Tenant (1976) The Tenant poster. At: (Accessed on: 08.12.10)

Figure 2. The Tenant (1976) Trelkovsky's apartment. At:
(Accessed on: 08.12.10)

Figure 3. The Tenant (1976) Trelkovsky trapped in shadow. At: (Accessed on: 08.12.10)

Figure 4. The Tenant (1976) Trelkovsky becoming the previous tenant. At: (1976) (Accessed on: 09.12.10)

Figure 5. The Tenant (1976) Trelkovsky beginning to lose his mind.  At: (Accessed on: 09.12.10)


Horsley, Jason (2009) The secret life of movies: schizophrenic and shamanic journeys in American Cinema. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company, Inc.

Marciniak, Katarzyna (2006) Alienhood: citizenship, exile, and the logic of difference. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press

Richardson, Michael (2006) Surrealism and cinema. Oxford: Berg

Stephan, Halina (2003) Living in translation: Polish writers in America. The Netherlands: Rodolpi


  1. This is true academic writing, Molly - not 'academic' in the sense of being stuffy, dusty or dry, but rather in terms of precision, concision and credibility. Your bibliography is great, and the fruits of your wider reading just shines out. I hope you're beginning to have that experience when research and joining the dots starts to feel a bit exhilarating... I'm impressed. Bloody well done.

  2. Excellent!! :D It's definitely the research that gives my reviews form, I'm usually pretty stumped as to what to write about until I have a good read around! I'm really glad I'm on the right tracks though, I know how important essays and critical analysis are going to be through out the course so I'm REALLY glad! :P

  3. and, more practically, the ability to 'read' systems of meaning and metaphor in visual culture, means you'll be able to create your own in your own work - essentially, it's your ability to read the mise-en-scene and use it to your own advantage.

  4. That would be greeeaaat! Here's hoping it works out that way anyway :P

  5. Well done Molly. Phil forwarded your three Polanski reviews to me to highlight the good practice going on in the academic sphere of the course. I watched The Tenant for the first time recently - your review does it justice. Observations such as the protagonist becoming 'ensnared' by the building via the shadow on the staircase are very astute.
    Along with your recent 1st for the Perception unit, this is promising work.