Analysis of “The Tenant”

The Tenant (Le locataire) is a 1976 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski, starring him, and written by him and Gérard Brach. It is the third film of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy,’ after Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The Tenant is based on Roland Topor‘s novel, Le locataire chimérique (The Chimerical Tenant).

Though generally considered a good film, this last one of the trilogy is the weakest, since Polanski–I’m sorry to say–is nowhere near as good an actor as he is a director, and the scenes of Trelkovsky (Polanski) dressed as a woman have an absurdity that detracts from the tension. Melvyn Douglas, Isabelle Adjani, and Shelley Winters all have supporting roles in the film.

Here are some quotes:

Trelkovsky: These days, relationships with neighbours can be…quite complicated. You know, little things that get blown up out of all proportion? You know what I mean?
Stella’s Friend: No, no I don’t. I mind my own business.

Stella: Why don’t you take your tie off? You look like you’re choking to death.
Trelkovsky: I found a tooth in my apartment. It was in a hole.

“If you cut off my head, what would I say…Me and my head, or me and my body? What right has my head to call itself me?” –Trelkovsky

[talking to himself after opening a box and taking out a pair of shoes] “Oh! My! Where did you find these? They are beautiful! A size 68? I had *no* idea!” –Trelkovsky

[while looking at himself in the mirror] “Beautiful. Adorable. Goddess. Divine. Divine! I think I’m pregnant.” –Trelkovsky, in women’s clothes

[to child] “Filthy little brat!” [slaps child] –Trelkovsky

“I am not Simone Choule!” –Trelkovsky

Trelkovsky is a foreigner and French citizen renting an apartment in Paris. His growing sense of social isolation in the apartment is something Polanski, a French-Polish Jew, must have identified with, hence his decision to play the role himself. Trelkovsky’s feeling of being trapped and persecuted by the others in the apartment building–a theme seen, obviously, in the other two ‘Apartment’ films–would have echoed Polanski’s childhood experiences in the Kraków Ghetto during the Nazi persecutions.

Trelkovsky is a polite, mild-mannered fellow asking about a room for rent in an apartment building owned by M. Zy (Douglas). Neither the concierge (Winters) nor Zy is particularly friendly to Trelkovsky, which should be an ill omen to him, but he wants to rent the room all the same. His predecessor, a tenant named Simone Choule, has thrown herself out of the apartment window for no apparent reason, another ill omen that he doesn’t think of as much as he should.

He is curious enough about her, however, to visit her in the hospital; for while she is severely injured, she isn’t dead…yet. In fact, he finds her in her hospital bed, her head all wrapped up in bandages, making her look like a mummy. Her ‘mummification,’ as it were, is significant in that Trelkovsky later learns that she is something of an Egyptologist.

He approaches her bed with another visitor, Stella (Adjani), who is in tears over Choule’s inexplicable suicide attempt. Choule is also missing one of her upper front teeth, a lack symbolically associated with castration, as we’ll see later. On seeing Trelkovsky, Choule lets out a hoarse, almost masculine-sounding yell. The significance of this will be seen at the end of the film.

Another dimension of the problems Trelkovsky must face is representative of the power imbalance between landlord and tenant, respectively, the owner of private property vs. the one needing to rent that property to have a place to live. The landlord, Zy, exercises that power over Trelkovsky by always complaining about the noise he makes, whether actual or imagined noise, as well as his apparent bringing of a woman into his apartment (when actually, it’s been Trelkovsky in women’s clothes).

So, there are the power imbalances of locals vs. a foreigner, a landlord vs. his tenants, and finally, perpetrators vs. victims of emotional abuse…all interrelated imbalances, as we’ll soon see.

Other interrelationships should be noted between all three of the ‘Apartment’ films. All three involve an individual in an apartment who feels isolated, in some sense, from other people. All three involve the protagonist growing paranoid. To what extent this paranoia is internally or externally caused, however, varies between the three movies.

In Repulsion, Carol’s psychosis is internal, the result of traumas that affected her long before the story begins; it is strongly implied that her father raped her when she was a child. In Rosemary’s Baby, the title character really is a victim of persecution by Satanists, though it seems to everyone, Satanist or not, that she’s going mad. In The Tenant, however, Trelkovsky’s madness is partly the result of his neighbours’ and landlord’s bullying and complaining, partly his own hallucinated experience.

Just as Carol in Repulsion fears her body being once again violated by a man, and just as Rosemary really is raped by Satan and impregnated with the Antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby, Trelkovsky feels his own body is being violated, taken over, and lessened…reduced.

There’s a dialectical relationship between life and death in The Tenant. Choule doesn’t die right away in the hospital, but she’s in a coma, and even when awake, she’s experiencing a kind of living death. After she dies, she is resurrected, so to speak, in Trelkovsky, gradually emerging in his consciousness as she takes over his body, compelling him to wear a wig, makeup, and her black, flowery dress.

Trelkovsky attends her funeral service in a church, where a priest speaks of how Choule will be with Christ in heaven (an odd thing to say about a suicide); but then, he speaks of the stench and filth of her rotting corpse, scaring Trelkovsky out of the church.

Here is what the priest says: “Simone Choule, the Lord has taken thee to His bosom, just as the shepherd brings in his sheep at the close of day. What could be more natural, of greater consolation? Is it not our fondest hope that we shall one day rejoin the flock of holy ones? Hope of eternal life, the true life, shorn of all worldly cares, face to face in eternal blessedness with Almighty God, who through His servant, our Lord Jesus Christ, died for us on the Cross, who deigns not to look down upon us poor mortal creatures, full of love, infinitely merciful, the sick, the suffering, the dying.” Very kind words, and consoling.

But then, he says this: “The icy tomb. Thou shalt return to the dust from whence thou came and only thy bones remain. The worms shall consume thine eyes, thy lips, thy mouth. They shall enter into thine ears, they shall enter into thy nostrils. Thy body shall putrefy unto its innermost recesses and shall give off a noisome stench. Yea, Christ has ascended into heaven and joined the host of angels on high. But not for creatures like you, full of the basest vice, yearning only for carnal satisfaction. How dare you pester me and mock at me to my very face? What audacity! What are you doing here in my temple? The graveyard is where you belong. Thou shalt stink like some putrefied corpse lying on the wayside. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt never enter into my kingdom.”

Has Trelkovsky hallucinated this last part of the priest’s words? In any case, we can see the dialectical relationship between life and death in the afterlife, for here is where the two meet.

Speaking of the afterlife, there’s Choule’s interest in ancient Egypt, where mummification was practiced out of a belief in its supposed efficacy in preserving the body for its new life after death. The bandaging of her head, and of Trelkovsky’s whole body at the end of the film, making them both look like mummies, reinforces this idea of life in death, since Choule’s life is repeated in Trelkovsky…then his life will recur, one assumes, over and over again in an endless cycle.

Mummification as a preserving of the body is also a defence against the loss of body parts, the protecting of the integrity of the body as a totality. Along with the loss of Choule’s tooth (and later, the loss of one of Trelkovsky’s teeth, in the same, upper front area) is his discovery, twice, of a tooth in a wall in his apartment.

Recall the cracks in the walls that trouble Carol so much in Repulsion, and how in my analysis of the film, I interpreted the cracks as symbolic of tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim. Trelkovsky’s toothed wall, consistent with my interpretation of walls in the ‘Apartment’ films as in this sense vaginal, can be seen as Choule’s vagina dentata, symbolically castrating him so he will be a she. (Recall also how, in Rosemary’s Baby, the wall separating the Woodhouses’ apartment and that of the Satanic Castevets is so thin that Rosemary can hear much of what is happening on the other side; and they can sneak into her apartment through the secret passageway. She can feel the danger of her neighbours as being much too close to her.) Walls in the Apartment Trilogy are oppressive, invasive.

So there is a sublation between the dialectical contradictions of life and death in The Tenant, as there is between male and female. There’s also a sublation of the contradiction of having and losing body parts: symbolic mummification, the preoccupation with ancient Egypt, is part of that sublation. Trelkovsky’s wearing of a wig and makeup is an attempted adding to his body, an attempt to reverse the losing of body parts. (Recall how he, in drag for the first time, imagines he’s pregnant.)

He is preoccupied with how all his intact body parts are an expression of his identity. He is his body. If he loses an arm, a tooth, his head, his stomach, his kidneys, or his intestines, are they still a part of him, or are they something separate? Do these dismemberments make him less of who he is? He says to Stella, “A tooth is a part of ourselves, isn’t it? Like a…bit of our personality.” As I said above, his transformation into Choule is a symbolic castration (small wonder he can’t have sex with Stella!). This is a Lacanian lack–giving rise to desire, the unattainable objet petit a, the wish to have the symbolic phallus, to be it–which causes him so much pain, it drives Trelkovsky mad.

His identity, understood as his body being an intact, unified totality, is opposed to the feeling of one’s body as fragmented, the way an infant feels his or her body to be prior to experiencing the mirror stage, which introduces the Imaginary Order. His ability to enjoy human company–as seen when he socializes with his coworkers (in his housewarming party, etc.), with Stella, and when he consoles Georges Badar (Rufus) after telling him that his beloved Simone is dead–indicates his full participation in the Symbolic Order of language, social custom, etc.

But Trelkovsky’s growing alienation in his apartment, combined with his feeling that he’s losing his body, that it is being taken over by Simone Choule, is his experience of the Real, a traumatic world of no differentiation, no way to express his pain in words. A hallucination of hieroglyphics in the shared toilet room mocks this inability of his to express his feelings with signifiers.

In the Real, as Trelkovsky is experiencing it, there is no differentiation between life and death, nor between male and female, nor between having and lacking. This inability to make sense of his world is what’s driving him mad. This lack of differentiation extends to the increasing frequency of his hallucinations, no distinction between fantasy and reality.

Zy and the neighbours complain that he is making too much noise (even if he isn’t), that his presence is encroaching, impinging on their personal space; when if anything, they are encroaching on his. His room is broken into, some of his possessions stolen, but neither Zy nor the neighbours take note of the intrusion, only of his apparent intrusion on their ears.

He isn’t the only one persecuted: a lady, Madame Gaderian (Lila Kedrova), and her disabled daughter (Eva Ionesco) are being bullied by the neighbours, falsely accused of causing trouble and scapegoated as much as he is. One crabby woman, Mme. Dioz (Jo Van Fleet), wants him to join in signing a petition against the Gaderians, but he refuses. This refusal to join the gang of bullying neighbours will cost him, as he’ll see soon enough.

He has been noticing strange goings-on in the shared toilet room: he’ll see one neighbour or another just standing there motionless, doing nothing, as if in a trance, a state of living death. Each of these people–facing his direction as he watches each of them with binoculars from his apartment window–is like a mirror reflection of himself; since he’s experiencing such a living death himself. He’ll even go into the toilet room one night, look back at his own apartment window, and see himself looking back at him with the binoculars, then see ‘mummified’ Choule, without the tooth, his future identity!

So, there’s no differentiation between self and other for him, either. This can happen when experiencing emotional abuse, since the abuser(s) see the victim(s) as extensions of themselves rather than as individuals in their own right. And the victim’s trauma of no differentiation, the inability to verbalize the disorienting, painful experience, is the essence of the Real.

A few friends of his give him some kind of emotional support. A loud, aggressive male coworker, Scope (Bernard Fresson), is one of Trelkovsky’s friends at the housewarming party. Scope is so annoyed with a neighbour (Claude Piéplu) complaining about the noise, he tries to inspire Trelkovsky to “counterattack” by deliberately playing a record of loud marching music with a piercingly high-pitched horn part to annoy his own neighbours. When a neighbour complains, Scope refuses to turn his music down. Such an assertion of one’s own existence is beyond Trelkovsky’s meek, unassuming nature; he won’t press beyond his own self, so he lets others press into his world.

Another source of emotional support is Stella; her friendship with Simone should be foreshadowing as to Trelkovsky’s own fate. His growing mental instability leads him to hallucinate, while staying in her apartment, that an elderly male visitor knocking on her door is M. Zy, causing Trelkovsky to believe she is a false friend, in on the plot to persecute him. He does a “counterattack” of his own, vandalizing and ransacking her apartment in revenge (and with particularly bad acting by Polanski, I’m sorry to say).

So there’s impingement of others on his world, and vice versa (this latter often imagined as a form of gaslighting, in the form of the neighbours’ and landlord’s complaints). This is a mirroring of the self and other, a blurred line of distinction between them. This reciprocal impingement is symbolic of how the foreigner is seen as encroaching on the locals of a country (as Nazi Germany perceived the Jews and Roma to be doing), the latter then really encroaching on the former. This same reciprocally impinging relationship can be seen between landlord and tenant, in the former’s raising of the rent, for example, and in the latter’s breaking of the rules of the apartment.

Just as Rosemary‘s apartment is evil (with her Satanist neighbours), and as Carol‘s apartment is evil (her being left alone in it, with only her rape trauma to keep her company), so is Trelkovsky’s apartment evil (with Choule’s ghost haunting it, so it would seem, and slowly coming to possess his body, her being his body’s ‘tenant’). This notion of an evil building, causing the dweller to go mad, would inspire Stanley Kubrick‘s version of The Shining.

But what does Trelkovsky’s evil apartment symbolize? Consider his threefold victimhood as a foreigner living in France, as a tenant living in Zy’s building, and as a man living in…Simone Choule’s body? Consider the interrelationship of these three forms of victimhood. In all three cases, he dwells in something that ought to be his, but isn’t.

As a proletarian internationalist, I don’t believe people are illegal. I don’t believe in countries, which are really just social and political constructs: I’m a Canadian living in East Asia–I’m a foreigner myself, technically, but I consider myself a citizen of the world. The locals here occasionally treat me as if an oddity, but I can’t really complain; Latin Americans caged by ICE and separated from their children for being ‘illegal’ have had it much worse, because…MAGA!

In the classless, stateless, and money-less society I regard as ideal (if you don’t like the word ‘communist,’ call it ‘pancakes‘ instead–there, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?), it wouldn’t matter what part of the world one was born in; contribute to society here, and you can live here. Similarly, without private property, there’d be no landlords, so no need to pay rent (especially Zy’s exorbitant demand of 5,000 francs premium, then 600 a month), for your home is, just that–yours, for as long as you decide to live there; there’d be no need to fear being kicked out onto the streets, as has happened way too often recently in the US, for example. And no capitalism means no more alienation of one’s species-essence, as symbolized in the film by Trelkovsky’s losing of his body to Choule.

Emotional abuse forces one to play a societal role, to assume an identity, one alien to oneself. The family scapegoat is brainwashed into believing he or she is the embodiment of everything wrong in the family–an idea every bit as absurd as it is unfair, untrue, and hurtful. Trelkovsky’s forced assuming of Choule’s identity, through projective and introjective identification, symbolizes this brainwashing. His effeminate behaviour in that dress and wig looks absurd (especially with Polanski’s acting!), but in a way, the absurdity is appropriate, given the silly communication style (i.e., emotional dysregulation) that sufferers of C-PTSD (like me) often have. Trapped in that apartment, Trelkovsky is experiencing small but repeated traumas from which he cannot escape, a problem typically resulting in C-PTSD.

His hallucinations get worse. He imagines Mme Dioz choking him. He, in drag, sees his decapitated head (more symbolic castration) kicked like a football up to the height of his apartment window; he looks down from there and sees the victimization of Mme. Gaderian and her daughter, the latter of whom looks up and points at him while wearing a mask of his face, thus passing the scapegoating onto him; then he blocks his door and window with furniture to keep the approaching victimizers out, but he sees a hand trying to get in through the window, so he uses a knife to hack at the hand and keep it out. When an elderly driver, with her husband, accidentally hits Trelkovsky as he steps out onto the street, he hallucinates that they’re Zy and Dioz, so he tries to choke her.

This last incident occurs after Trelkovsky’s failed attempt to procure a gun in a pub, angering the staff. This attempted acquisition is him trying to regain his symbolic phallus after losing it from Choule’s takeover of his body.

He can’t even escape his world of emotional abuse through suicide: in Choule’s clothes, he jumps from the window twice, breaking through the pane of glass below as she did, recreating that hole of jagged glass that symbolizes another castrating and castrated vagina dentata. The repeated jump, just like the cyclical repetition of Trelkovsky transforming into Choule, represents what Freud called a “compulsion to repeat” traumatic experiences.

Zy, Dioz, the concierge, et al seem to want to help him as he crawls back up to his apartment for his second fall, but he hallucinates that they’re all practically demonic…or is their attempt at helpfulness the deception? Emotional abuse and gaslighting can be that confusing for the victim.

In the final scene, he’s wrapped up in bandages on the hospital bed, looking like a mummy and lacking a tooth. Under those bandages, would Trelkovsky or Choule be seen? It would seem to be the latter, for he and Stella come to visit, exactly like at the beginning of the film, thus starting the cycle of doom all over again.

That hoarse yell is heard again. There are no words, because this is a trauma that cannot be verbalized, the trauma of the Real. Injured Trelkovsky sees himself standing with Stella, all healthy and normal, the ideal-I of a metaphorical mirror reflection, so he’s alienated from himself; but he knows he cannot stop the cycle of doom from being perpetually repeated. He will lose that body he sees looking back at him; he will lose himself, again and again and again, like a decaying, rotting, foul-smelling corpse, living an eternal death.

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