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The Panic Tone – Polanski and Topor’s The Tenant (1976)

April 8, 2009

In my piece on Polanski’s Repulsion (1968), I highlighted the homage paid by Polanski to the generation of Surrealist filmmakers who came before him.  In this piece, I want to examine the similarities in tone between another of Polanski’s films and the branch of French Surrealism that provided the source material for one of Polanski’s best known films, The Tenant (1976).

By 1960, the vultures had started to circle the Surrealist movement.  What had started out as a desire to destroy and rebuild the iconography of Western Art in the aftermath of the First World War now seemed like a circular and pointless endeavour through which one section of the bourgeoisie tried to shock and outrage another section of the same narrow social institution.  While members of the Generation of ‘27 burned with anger at the Franquist government which had exiled and jailed them, the alliances with Marxism that would impact film-makers such as Bunuel were still a way off.  Facing such creative stagnation, Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor came together to form Burlesque, a creative clique which would later inspire itself from the god Pan and name themselves the Panic Movement.

Film Poster

Film Poster

The Panic Movement yielded films, poetry and novels but its primary mode of operation was the kind of publicity stunts that give performance art a bad name;  Slitting the throats of geese, covering naked women with honey, attaching snakes to their chests and, most famously, re-staging the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish using toads and lizards for Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain (1973).

One of the more accessible (and indeed interesting) works to come out of the Panic Movement is Roland Topor’s Le Locataire Chimerique (1964), better known in English as The Tenant.  Topor’s novel tells the story of a mild-mannered and discrete man who moves into a new apartment following the suicide of its previous tenant.  Initially pleased with his new digs, the tenant soon becomes incredibly anxious about the noise complaints he receives from his neighbours.  A social gathering nearly provokes his upstairs neighbour to violence while even moving a piece of furniture is enough to illicit a symphony of wall-banging from neighbours on all sides.  Consumed by guilt and fear of being thrown into the street, the tenant cuts himself off from friends and starts to descend into a state of complete paranoia about how he is perceived by fellow tenants.  This paranoia rapidly spirals out of control and the tenant descends into madness as his identity and that of the previous tenant start to bleed into one another, resulting in hallucinations and fantasies that become increasingly bizarre and grotesque until the book reaches a final and bloody denouement.

Book Cover

Book Cover

It is possible to read Topor’s book as an allegorical take on the alienation felt by artists, political activists and other non-conformists in the face of a repressive society that seems hell bent on excluding them and isolating them for the most petty and childish of reasons.  the story in effect revolves around someone who engages in behaviour which, while anti-social, is hardly a huge nuisance.  However, despite this, his neighbours resort to more and more extreme tactics in order to force him into conformity.  They begin with democratically requesting signatures to a petition but before long, their nimbyish authoritarian temperament pushes them to appeal to the landlord, the police and then – as the protagonist’s grip on reality becomes more untenable – institutions that are actively medieval in their cruelty.  This desire to silence people who are a tiny bit annoying is present in today’s Daily Mail readers who are swift to call on the government to ban even the smallest of annoyances from mobile phones to scooters to iPods.  However, while I think Topor’s The Tenant is a fantastic book, I am most interested in its tone.

Paris Statue inspired by Le Passe-Muraille

Paris Statue inspired by Le Passe-Muraille

Despite chronicling a descent into madness and paranoia, Topor’s tone is light and almost jovial.  Indeed, it is hugely reminiscent of that used in Marcel Ayme’s Le Passe-Muraille (1943).  Ayme’s novella revolves around a bland and inoffensive civil service who suddenly discovers that he has the power to pass through walls.  This power to transgress and overcome boundaries leads the character to discover love before losing his power and remaining trapped forever inside a wall.  This novella, published along with a number of other short stories that can be classed as playfully fantastical in that they have one foot planted in the French realist tradition of Zola and Balzac but another in the fabulous tradition of La Fontaine explored in Ayme’s writing under the name Les Contes Du Chat Perche, poorly translated into English as The Wonderful Farm.  What is most surprising about Roland Polanski’s adaptation of The Tenant is the extent to which this playful and whimsical tone carries over into what is essentially quite a grim and disturbing psychological thriller.

For all its thematic darkness, The Tenant is a genuinely funny film. Its protagonist Trelkovsky is a mild-mannered and almost timorous man who is incredibly passive with women, with his neighbours and even his friends.  One of the funniest scenes in the film involves Trelkovsky squirming with horror as one of his over-bearing friends demonstrates how to deal with upset neighbours by putting on a recording of marching band music at full blast and then angrily berating a neighbour who dares to plead for a bit of quiet so that his sick wife can rest.  Another fantastic scene features Polanski himself (he plays the unhappy Trelkovsky) appearing in full drag and stroking his stocking-clad legs whilst cooing “I think I’m pregnant” into the mirror.  Even Trelkovsky’s melodramatic attempt to escape the oppression of his neighbours has a darkly comic quality to it as the man throws himself from a window and, upon realising he is not yet dead, drags his bloodied and bruised body back up the stairs in order to throw himself out the window a second time.

By preserving the whimsical elements of the original novel, Polanski not only continues to show the influence of Surrealism upon his work, he also taps into one of the most enduring motifs of European art, namely that the only sane reaction to the kind of death and misery caused by World War is to laugh.  If Surrealism is whimsical, it is because it is a reaction to the events of the First World War.  The same instinct can be seen in the French reaction to the death and collaboration that went on during the Second World War, namely the recognition via Camus that human concerns are ultimately absurd.  The Tenant does not mourn Trelkovsky’s descent into madness, it looks on and acknowledges how silly it all is.  This whimsical tone is completely at odds with the dark and haunting imagery of Repulsion and the dream-like Horror and injustice of Rosemary’s Baby.

5 Comments
  1. April 10, 2009 4:28 pm

    Many thanks for this, I wasn’t aware of Topor’s background and the film’s relation to the Generation of ’27. What I have always felt is the film plays out like pure Kafka, replete with the dark humour you so correctly identify, a trait so often ignored in Kafka’s writing. Indeed, the presence of the East European folk tale that underpins all Kafka’s work perhaps links directly to Polanski’s Polish roots, replete with the macabre humour that is a chief characteristic of the Polish personality. When Polanski allows it to be unrestrained it results in a shambles like Fearless Vampire Killers, Pirates or Oliver Twist, but certainly this dark humour lingers through much of his work with differing success (Cul De Sac, Knife In the Water). I think it’s there in Rosemary’s Baby too in the portrayal of Ffarrow’s neighbours, despite the film’s nasty darkness.

    For me though, The Tenant remains his finest work simply because of its capacity to wrong foot an audience and actually make them experience a sense of paranoia. One can only presume Polanski’s exile from the States on rape charges, coupled with the previous horror of the Tate Murders gave him insight into this terrifying mindset few men would care for.

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  2. April 10, 2009 4:54 pm

    Richard — the petty officiousness of the neighbours is definitely pure Kafka as is the central character who is intensely alienated not only from his neighbours but also his friends and, increasingly, himself.

    The book (more so than the film) is full of medieval imagery. In the book the scenes he sees out of his window are what you might expect at an East European fair or carnival. The same goes for the neighbours in Rosemary’s Baby with their horrid concoctions and weird habits.

    Apparently Polanski was very phlegmatic about Tate’s murder (he did live through the Holocaust after all). Ken Tynan’s diaries have these stories in which Tynan would talk about how nice her arse was and apparently during the filming of his Macbeth he had to pour blood all over this little girl and he was trying to direct her and he asked her her name and the girl replied Sharon and while there was a huge intake of breath from the cast, Polanski did not seem overly concerned at the coincidence.

    I think he’s so good at dealing with the darker emotions of life because of all the stuff he has lived through. He’s seen more death and suffering than most men and you can see that in his best films.

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  3. April 10, 2009 7:46 pm

    Have you seen Clive James’s famous interview with him? James asks him frank, direct questions about all the torrid times in his life and not once does he flinch or shrug responsibility. I’m hoping the whole thing turns up on YouTube soon.

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  4. April 12, 2009 10:01 am

    That does sound amazing, I must admit.

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