Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 3 
4 Feb
2002

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Roman Polanski's Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976) HORROR
Sympathetic spectators
Roman Polanski's
Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976)

Le Locataire, one of Polanski's lesser-known films, utilises both an "unreliable" narrator and manipulates an "unreliable" audience to achieve it's horror effect. Aaron Smuts analyses the film.


Structurally centered around ambiguity, the finest horror films allow viewers to scare themselves. The most lasting frights do not come from special effects or heavy reliance on the startle response, but from active viewing encouraged by strategies of assumption and provocation. Roman Polanski's psychological horror relies on audience paranoia and suspicion approximating that of his most fragile characters. An often overlooked and little discussed film, Le Locataire (The Tenant, France/USA, 1976) explores the violence of the loss of privacy, and, like most of Polanski's films, examines the failure to cope with or surmount the look of the other. Polanski presents the phenomenology of inter-subjectivity as a battleground between aggressive parties seeking to control the weak. Though deeply pessimistic, he often sides with victims who are unable to deal with the pressures of public life by encouraging similar responses from his audience.

Le Locataire sympathises with its hyper-self-conscious protagonist, who lives in a hungry, selfish world in which few could survive unharmed. Trelkovsky (played by Polanski), a Parisian immigrant with a malleable will, learns of a potential apartment vacancy, presumably from newspaper stories about the previous tenant's attempted suicide. While visiting this former tenant, who lies dying in hospital encased in a full body cast, he meets her close friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani) who later offers some temporary sanctuary. Upon moving in, Trelkovsky finds that the other residents exhibit bizarre quirks, such as a tendency to remain stationary in the bathroom for extended periods of time and a strange intolerance for noise.

It becomes impossible for him to live in his apartment as the aggravated thumping of his neighbors become more frequent and intense. Trelkovsky's already meek personality—his drink orders, for example, are completely determined by whoever he might be with—is exaggerated. With a weakening ability to assert himself against pushy café employees, friends and neighbors, Trelkovsky comes to believe that most of Paris is trying to eliminate his selfhood and turn him into the previous tenant, Simone. He quickly descends into madness, and as an act of defiance and misguided self-assertion, he becomes determined to kill himself. Dressed in drag, he leaps from his apartment window through the glass atrium below exactly as Simone did, but succeeds only in breaking his leg. His resolve unshaken, he pulls himself up the stairs and gives it another try. This time he is successful.

Unreliable narration and the victim's perspective

Polanski's view of the individual against the carnivorous public has deep roots. His biography reads as a list of constant obstructions to his process of self-determination. As a child, he was ghettoised in Nazi-occupied Poland and had to pass as a Christian while living with family friends in his youth. In adolescence, Polanski was thwarted in his acting ambitions by the communist government in Poland. In 1969 his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson cult, and in 1977 he fled the US as a fugitive from justice to avoid serving time for statutory rape.[1] He has been wanted, hunted and hounded all his life, and it is not surprising that the theme of victimisation has been of central importance in his films. From the sexually-hounded heroine of Repulsion (1965) to the womb of Satan's offspring in Rosemary's Baby (1968), Polanski's protagonists assume the role of victim to meet the needs of a parasitic society.

The effectiveness of Polanski's films lies in his adept characterisation and his manipulation of narrative form and perspective, which help to produce innovative emotional structures. Le Locataire is primarily a psychological horror film with a tight grip on reality, unlike the supernaturalism of Rosemary's Baby or the hallucinatory quality of Repulsion. In an excellent essay on Polish horror cinema, Nathaniel Thompson describes the narrator in each of the films under examination as "unreliable," and makes fine distinctions between each. He argues that "in [Le Locataire] the viewer remains trapped within the outsider protagonist's perspective even after any semblance of sanity has been lost for good."[2]

What makes Polanski effective is that Thompson's claim above is only partially correct. When Trelkovsky has unmistakably gone mad, his insanity is confirmed by shifts in perspective between the implied narrator and the main character. The first blatantly obvious break occurs through a peephole. From the side, Polanksi sets up a pov shot of Trelkovsky checking to see who is at the door. From Trelkovsky's perspective we see his sinister landlord. The next shot is taken directly outside the door from the previous setup shot. From this uninhabited perspective, the narrator shows us a completely different man, most likely a door-to-door salesman. Several more times we see evidence of Trelkovsky's hallucinations. The presentation of this evidence is clearly a release from perspectival entrapment and clues the viewer in to the objective falseness of these particular experiences.

This is an extremely clever rhetorical strategy on Polanski's part, serving to imprint the remainder of the film with the cast of truth. The implied narrator tells us that they are faithful to reality and has not been lying throughout the rest of the film. This move implies that any difference between what you see and the reality of the fiction will be clearly distinguished and has been from the start.

With this implicit promise on the part of the implied narrator, the final sequences are extremely confusing, perhaps leading the viewer to doubt the veracity of the entire narrative. They portray the residents of the building as somewhat concerned with Trelkolvsky's well being, a slight difference from their earlier characterization, though this may just be a public front. The most disconcerting sequence involves an inexplicable time/mind collapse, where Trelkovsky finds himself reliving his earlier hospital visit from Simone's perspective, that of the mummified "patient" looking up at Trekolvsky himself. The viewer is not sure if the character actually finds himself in a paralysed, mummified state or if this is simply the last product of his imagination as he lays on the ground dying after his second suicide jump.

Assumption provocation and spectator unreliability

Another look at the film suggests that the narrator of Le Locataire obeys the implicit promise of reliability and is the steadfastly honest tool of the filmmaker, a masterful rhetorical strategist; however, the intended audience's interpretation of the story is suspect. With simple filmic techniques Polanski is able to bring the viewer into a state ready to condemn all of Paris. A few phrases, looks and coincidences are all it takes to win sympathy for the premise of horror. Tension mounts as the Parisian gothic characters become crueler, increasingly selfish, and strangely intolerant of noise. A supernatural cult-of-the-mummy is hinted at by placing Egyptian hieroglyphics in conspicuous places, often unnoticed by Trelkovsky, such as the picture in Stella's apartment. Annoying neighbors, obnoxious Parisians and the mummy leitmotif become so pronounced through repetition that the viewer becomes a co-conspiracy theorist with Trelkovsky himself.

The audience's predilection to accept a proto-supernatural explanation, as we might find in a film by Dario Argento,[3] becomes so pronounced that at Trelkovsky's break with sanity the viewer is encouraged to take a straightforward hallucination for a supernatural act. He walks into his building, turns on the light and is startled to find a woman who has been persecuted by the noise police hiding in the hallway. The camera shifts to Trelkovsky's perspective and we see another woman, whom he angered earlier by refusing to sign a petition, begin to choke him. The camera then cuts away from his view and we see him struggling alone. Rapid cuts show the woman with her hands out, the other woman still standing in the corner and Trelkovsky being choked to death.

His earlier experience with the bitter woman and the other oddities of the building allow the viewer to think that Trelkovsky may be the strangulation victim of some sort of Spock-like magic. This interpretation is easily broached upon a first screening of the film, but upon subsequent viewings it is surprising how unsupported is such an assumption. The scene is ambiguous enough that the characters who were earlier set up as despicable are easily assumed to be evil. Using Noël Carroll's terminology, we might say that the audience has been "criterially prefocused" and that we are looking for evidence of what we assume will happen.[4] This phenomenon of viewer response is similar to the common erroneous recountings of eye-witnesses to airplane crashes, who often report having seen explosions that video evidence later shows to be complete fabrications of the imagination.

The final scenes make Trelkovsky's break from madness more pronounced and changes in perspective help to clearly indicate what he sees versus what is actually present. The initial assumptions of conspiracy are so difficult to break, partly due to the extreme oddness of the building's occupants and the earlier finding of a human tooth inexplicably embedded in a wall, that the last scenes, especially the dream-mummy sequence, may seem utterly inconsistent. However, the film can be viewed as a mostly consistent exploration of provoked paranoia, and tends to offer more support for this interpretation when watched with the foreknowledge of Trelkovsky's coming insanity.

The viewing experience is much less enjoyable from a critical distance, as the film's effectiveness relies almost entirely on the audience to be as suspicious and susceptible as Trelkovsky. However, Le Locataire remains powerful because it does not rely solely on either narratorial or audience unreliability. In order to completely discount the conspiratorial evidence, especially the neighbor's bathroom behaviors, the viewer would be required to reject the implicit pact of narratorial honesty developed in the later segments. The ambiguity and slight inconsistencies allow Polanski to artfully manipulate audience sympathy in a wonderfully disturbing film that offers new takes at every viewing.

Aaron Smuts

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Also of interest
About the author

Aaron Smuts studied philosophy in the PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written on David Hume and is working on the paradox of emotional response and the concept of violence "numbers." Currently, he is Director of development at a software company in New York and is involved in Jakarta, the open source software project. He plans to return to gradaute school next fall to study film theory and philosophy.


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Footnotes

1. Thomas Kiernan, The Roman Polanski Story. New York: Delilah / Grove Press, 1980.return to text

2. Nathaniel Thompson, "The unreliable narrator: subversive storytelling in Polish horror cinema." In Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, ed Steven Jay Schneider. Guildford: FAB Press, forthcoming 2002.return to text

3. Suspiria (1977) and especially Inferno (1980) portray buildings in some form of supernatural collusion against the protagonist. Phenomena (1985) picks up on the dormitory persecution theme with a different, inverse-Psycho (1960) explanation. In Phenomena, we expect a monkey to be the killer and transfer our suspicion to the son because they are similar in size, only to find that it is really the mother who is the killer.return to text

4. Noël Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics. New York: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2001: 227.return to text

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