THE TENANT directed by Roman Polanski (USA, 1976)

Psycho Tootsie - Polanski cross dressing.

Psycho Tootsie – Polanski cross dressing.

“At what precise moment does an individual stop being who he thinks he is?”  This is the key existential question at the heart of a movie about one man’s descent into cross-dressing and insanity.

Like all the best mindfuck movies, The Tenant gets inside your head to the point that you are unsure where real fears end and paranoid illusions take over.

Set in Paris,  Polanski stars as the scrupulously polite Trelkovsky, a Polish man who gives every appearance of being an upstanding, serious-minded French citizen.

Strange things happen when he moves in to the apartment of Simone Choule, a young woman who has inexplicably attempted suicide and is not expected to live.

For reasons best known to himself, he visits her in hospital, pretending to be a friend. He finds her bandaged head to toe with only one eye and her mouth exposed. At her bedside he meets Stella  (a geeky looking Isabelle Adjani) and the presence of one or both of them causes Simone to let out a blood curdling scream.

He and Stella exit for a consoling drink in a nearby bar; quickly followed by a kiss and a grope in the cinema while watching Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon.  It looks like the beginning of a romance but the two part company formally with no plans to meet again.

The next day, when Trelkovsky rings for news about Simone, a nurse curtly informs him that she is dead.

Having agreed to abide by the strict house rules, Trelkovsky gets off on the wrong foot when a late night housewarming party gets out of hand through his rowdy and obnoxious guests.  When a neighbour complains, Trelkovsky is all apologies and brings the party to an abrupt conclusion.

Despite this willingness to appease the other occupants of the block, things go from bad to worse. The slightest noise he makes provokes angry knocks from the adjoining flats.

Up to this point, the narrative is relatively conventional with a ‘hell is other people’ paranoia being the strongest motif for a young man who, on the surface at least  just wants to lead a quiet life without disturbing anyone.

nightsweatsGradually the plot takes on a Kafkaesque dimensions as Trelkovsky is frequently accused of breaches of the peace even though we see no evidence of any anti-social behaviour. He is trapped in a classic nightmare scenario where he feels under threat even in the apparent safety of his home.

There are other signs that evil forces at at work. Egyptian hieroglyphs written on the wall of the communal toilet might be coded instructions about where to get a blow job but suggest something more sinister. We know that the late Simone Choule was an Egyptologist and we recall her Mummy-like appearance in the hospital.

What do these signs mean and what is the significance of a tooth Trelkovsky finds hidden in a hole in the wall?  Needless to say, we never really learn the answers to these questions.

What is clear is that there’s something other than a call of nature  that keeps the other tenants lingering in the smallest room long enough to look decidedly spooky. Trelkovsky can see them from his window standing motionless as if in a trance.

As he seems blessed with an iron bladder, he only has call to use the facilities when he gets a bad case of the cold sweats one night. When he looks out of the toilet window up to his own flat he sees himself looking back at him.

From this point on the freakiness knows no bounds.

Trelkovsky is convinced that the other tenants are trying to drive him mad to the point of forcing him to make the same fatal leap as Simone through the glass roof below. In his disturbed state of mind, he begins to dress as the fated ex-tenant so that he looks like a psychotic Tootsie.

When he reconnects with Stella, what at first appears to be a port in the storm turns out to be further confirmation that the whole world is against him.   His fate is sealed.

Because there is no precise moment when this individual goes cuckoo, it leaves you wondering if, after all, he was crazy all along.

There are so many loose ends and unexplained events that this fascinating cult movie is open to myriad interpretations; one surefire way to guarantee longevity.

After initial rejection by critics is now rightly recognised as one of Polanski’s greatest movies. It’s even one of Julian Cope‘s favourite films – what further recommendation could you possibly need?