SUR­REAL ES­TATE

Ro­man Polan­ski’s dis­turb­ing apart­ment films, with their height­ened sense of hor­ror and sus­pense, are be­ing re­vis­ited, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Ro­man: 10 x Polan­ski

Forty years ago, Ro­man Polan­ski made a film, The Ten­ant, in which he was direc­tor, writer and star. It’s hardly his best-known work, yet it’s one of his best, a film that con­tains many of the strong themes and stylis­tic traits that run right through his film­mak­ing.

It’s the last of a group of films known as the apart­ment tril­ogy that shares el­e­ments of hor­ror and sus­pense, care­fully yet dev­as­tat­ingly con­veyed; they are set in big cities but their most threat­en­ing spa­ces are do­mes­tic. The Ten­ant is part of Ro­man: 10 x Polan­ski, a sea­son of the direc­tor’s films from 1962 to 2012, that screens na­tion­ally.

Adrian Martin and Cristina Al­varez Lopez, in a vis­ual es­say com­mis­sioned by Mel­bourne’s Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age to ac­com­pany the sea­son, talk about Polan­ski’s cin­ema as “en­tirely built on a hor­ror of in­va­sion”, and show how he “favours com­po­si­tions that en­hance the lack of pri­vacy in small, claus­tro­pho­bic spa­ces”.

This is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to the apart­ment films; char­ac­ters be­come in­creas­ingly con­fined and de­fined by the places they in­habit. The ma­te­rial con­di­tions of these spa­ces can have things in com­mon: front doors with peep­holes; doors that open on to hall­ways; cor­ri­dors; stair­wells. Win­dows with views on to the street, on to an­other life, or the sound of neigh­bours’ voices, the in­tru­sive re­minders of a pres­ence that can’t be avoided.

These films are set in dif­fer­ent cities — Lon­don, Paris, New York — and the cir­cum­stances of their cen­tral fig­ures are dif­fer­ent. Yet none of them can de­fine or pro­tect the place where they live. It is not sim­ply about pri­vacy. Char­ac­ters can be un­der duress in all kinds of ways, from with­out and within. A place of iden­tity and safety be­comes per­me­able, frag­ile, un­re­li­able, even threat­en­ing. Ob­jects can have spe­cific, al­most tal­is­manic qual­i­ties; seem­ingly ev­ery­day items can carry per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance or haunt­ing power.

The first apart­ment film is Re­pul­sion (1965), Polan­ski’s sec­ond fea­ture, shot in Lon­don in height­ened black and white. Ac­cord­ing to Polan­ski, he and co-writer Ger­ard Brach pro­duced the script in 17 days. The cen­tral char­ac­ter was based on a young French woman Brach and Polan­ski had known who shared a house with a friend of theirs.

Re­pul­sion, which stars Cather­ine Deneuve, is the story of a young woman, Carol, in a state of es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis that no one around her seems to reg­is­ter. She lives in Lon­don with her older sis­ter (Yvonne Furneaux) and works as a man­i­curist in a beauty sa­lon. Male at­ten­tion un­set­tles her, whether it’s the preda­tory leer of a stranger or the per­sis­tence of a well-dressed suitor. She’s also re­pelled and com­pelled by the pres­ence of her sis­ter’s lover in their flat, by the sight of his tooth­brush and ra­zor or the smell of the sin­glet he leaves in the bath­room.

Deneuve give a pre­cisely ob­served per­for­mance: at times she seems to be al­most sleep­walk­ing, the em­bod­i­ment of blank­ness and dis­tress, with oc­ca­sional fever­ish, scrab­bling ges­tures.

Grad­u­ally, the ob­jects in her flat be­come just as men­ac­ing to her as the out­side world. Ev­ery­day sounds — a drip­ping tap, a tick­ing clock, foot­steps in the hall — are mag­ni­fied.

A flex­i­ble set with slid­ing pan­els en­abled Polan­ski to en­large some of the rooms — as Carol’s hal­lu­ci­na­tions be­come more acute, rooms start to look big­ger. He also used widean­gle lenses for close-ups on her face.

Then there are the tiny de­tails of or­ganic life that mea­sure the pas­sage of time and de­cay. A skinned rab­bit that was be­ing pre­pared for a meal is left out of the fridge and be­gins to rot. Pota­toes on the top of the fridge be­gin to sprout.

Re­pul­sion be­gins and ends with the shot of Carol’s eye — the first time in re­al­ity, the sec­ond time in a pho­to­graph — as a way of em­pha­sis­ing her sub­jec­tiv­ity, her per­spec­tive.

Yet Polan­ski wasn’t en­tirely happy, he has said, with the way he ren­dered her point of view: when he pre­pared to make Rose­mary’s Baby (1968) his Hol­ly­wood de­but, he wanted to get this right.

Mia Far­row is Rose­mary, a young woman fo­cused on be­ing a wife and then a mother. As her hus­band, Guy, an ac­tor who is not as suc­cess­ful as he would like to be, Polan­ski cast direc­tor and ac­tor John Cas­savetes. The cou­ple seems to be com­fort­ably off.

We first meet Guy and Rose­mary as they in­spect a dark, clut­tered apart­ment that has be­come va­cant af­ter the death of its ten­ant. There are odd things about the place — un­usual plants, a piece of fur­ni­ture that blocks the door of a built-in cup­board. They learn the build­ing has a rep­u­ta­tion for du­bi­ous ten­ants, in­clud­ing mur­der­ers and peo­ple ac­cused of witchcraft.

Un­de­terred, Guy and Rose­mary move in. They trans­form the place, mak­ing it lighter, brighter and more mod­ern. Yet in an apart­ment build­ing, no mat­ter how care­fully you plan and dec­o­rate and con­trol the in­te­rior, the out­side world has a way of gain­ing ac­cess. Rose­mary is no match for the in­sis­tent con­cern of the el­derly cou­ple, Ro­man and Min­nie Castevet (Sid­ney Black­mer and Ruth Gor­don), who in­sin­u­ate them­selves into her life.

Po­lite, obe­di­ent, a Catholic girl from Omaha, Rose­mary does what she is told. When she is preg­nant, she may get to choose the items for the nurs­ery but she seems to cede con­trol of her body and mind. Don’t read books, she is told by the doc­tor the Castevets in­sist she goes to. Do as I say. Drink this daily. En­dure pain. Mo­ments of re­bel­lion — a party Rose­mary or­gan­ises for hip­per, younger friends — are few and far be­tween. There is talk of a larger fam­ily, but Rose­mary never makes con­tact with them.

Like Re­pul­sion, the film’s cen­tral char­ac­ter has hal­lu­ci­na­tions — or in this case per­haps ex­pe­ri­ences — that in­volve sex­ual as­sault. They are filmed in a very dif­fer­ent fash­ion to the pre- vi­ous film and bear a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship to the world the char­ac­ter in­hab­its. Rose­mary’s Baby sug­gests its cen­tral char­ac­ter is fall­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of Satanism, that her neigh­bours are witches.

Polan­ski ad­mired Ira Levin’s book, on which the film is based, but wasn’t sure about its su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ment, say­ing, “I no more be­lieved in Satan as evil in­car­nate than I be­lieved in a per­sonal god; the whole idea con­flicted with my ra­tio­nal view of the world. For cred­i­bil­ity’s sake, I de­cided there had to be a loop­hole: the pos­si­bil­ity that Rose­mary’s su­per­nat­u­ral ex­pe­ri­ences were fig­ments of her imag­i­na­tion.”

The apart­ment films don’t stand wholly apart from Polan­ski’s other works — they have things in com­mon with other movies he has made, yet the three do have con­nec­tions, struc­turally and the­mat­i­cally.

Re­pul­sion and Rose­mary’s Baby have fe­male cen­tral char­ac­ters: the cen­tral fig­ure in The Ten­ant is male. Yet his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with a fe­male fig­ure in the movie be­comes stronger as the film goes on. Deneuve has said she thinks Polan­ski would have liked to have played Carol in Re­pul­sion — and she sug­gests that was why, 13 years later, the direc­tor (an ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tor) in­sisted on play­ing the lead in The Ten­ant.

Polan­ski’s char­ac­ter, Trelkovsky, works in an of­fice in an un­spec­i­fied bu­reau­cratic func­tion. He is from Poland but is a French citizen, a de­tail he feels the need to clar­ify sev­eral times; he is per­pet­u­ally treated as an out­sider by oth­ers.

Just as Rose­mary’s Baby has odd echoes of Re­pul­sion, The Ten­ant has cu­ri­ous par­al­lels with Rose­mary’s Baby Rose­mary’s Baby, be­gin­ning with a new ten­ancy. Trelkovsky learns an apart­ment has be­come va­cant and asks the concierge (Shel­ley Win­ters) if he can see it. She takes him for a view­ing and points out the win­dow, show­ing the bro­ken sky­light through which the pre­vi­ous ten­ant fell. This woman is still alive, he is told, but she’s in a coma. He vis­its her in hos­pi­tal and gets to know one of her friends (Is­abelle Ad­jani).

Like Rose­mary, Trelkovsky is po­lite and ac­com­mo­dat­ing. But he’s not a vic­tim of the ap­pear­ance of kind­ness as she is. It’s the re­verse. He’s vul­ner­a­ble to his col­leagues who abuse his hos­pi­tal­ity; to fel­low ten­ants, who file mys­ti­fy­ing com­plaints about his be­hav­iour; to thieves; to his land­lord; to the apart­ment it­self, which ap­pears to have the abil­ity to en­gulf him; and to the fig­ure of the pre­vi­ous ten­ant, with whom he comes to iden­tify in dis­con­cert­ing fash­ion.

This time, Polan­ski gives us not just his cen­tral char­ac­ter’s sub­jec­tive vi­sion but also an al­ter­na­tive way of look­ing at what he sees: there are scenes in which Trelkovsky is un­mis­tak­ably paranoid, mis­taken, hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. Yet there are cir­cum­stances in which his fears and dis­in­te­gra­tion make sense. The fear of be­ing de­nounced by your neigh­bours in the city of Paris has spe­cific res­o­nances. The Ten­ant has the feel­ing of a para­ble, a Kafka night­mare, a story of col­laps­ing iden­tity that has many im­pli­ca­tions.

is at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age in Mel­bourne un­til Novem­ber 22; Can­berra, Novem­ber 24 to 30; and Syd­ney and Bris­bane, De­cem­ber 1 to 7.

Ro­man Polan­ski as the trou­bled Trelkovsky in The Ten­ant, top; Mia Far­row in

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