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