In my most recent “Gender and Horror Film” class, we watched The Tenant, a 1976 film directed, co-written, and starring the controversial filmmaker, Roman Polanski. The film follows Trelkovsky (portrayed by Polanski), a young Polish-Frenchman, as he moves into a small, Parisian apartment whose previous occupant committed suicide. Watch the trailer below:
As the trailer makes clear, the film elaborates on themes previously explored in films written and directed by Polanski. Specifically at issue: the paranoia that results from the claustrophobia of urban life. In the case of The Tenant, Trelkovsky’s problems begin with nosy, irritable neighbors before his mental state devolves into madness; Trelkovsky comes to believe that his neighbors have plotted to drive him to suicide and eventually, he begins to dress and behave like the former occupant of his apartment named Simone. The film does such an excellent job of conveying his neurosis that, as one of my classmates suggested, you’re relieved once he finally succeeds at suicide.
Of the films directed by Polanski, The Tenant most closely resembles Repulsion. Like Trelkovsky, Repulsion‘s protagonist, Carole (played by Catherine Deneuve) is a foreigner living in a small apartment in an urban milieu (London):
As in The Tenant, paranoia derives not only from the trappings of city life, but from conflicts related to gender and sexuality. From the beginning of the film, Carol appears fearful of men and seems to date a man named Colin purely due to social pressures. A photograph of Carol as a child suggests that her emotional instability began in childhood and a past trauma is also implied. When left alone for the weekend by her friend Helen, Carol murders Colin, who forcefully enters her apartment demanding an explanation for her disinterest. She then murders a landlord who attempts to rape her. (Sidenote: Repulsion predicted the rape-revenge genre, with cult-classic Ms. 45 seeming especially reminiscent with its similarly androphobic protagonist retaliating violently after two incidents of rape.) Repulsion, then, suggests that in spite of her psychosis, Carol’s paranoia may be justified.
The same can be said for one of the most famous of Polanski-directed films, Rosemary’s Baby. The film, based on a book penned by the great Ira Levin, follows Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) , the wife of a young actor (John Cassavettes) who becomes pregnant after experiencing a strange “dream” of being raped by a demon. Much of the suspense hinges upon whether or not Rosemary’s strange symptoms (a craving for raw meat, unbearable cramps) and fears stem from neuroses or a genuine physical source. The end of the film confirms Rosemary’s fears that a satanic conspiracy surrounds her pregnancy, revealing her baby to be the spawn of Satan. Ultimately, Rosemary agrees to mother her baby in spite of his grotesque appearance (implied rather than shown). Here’s the groovy trailer:
While I find the gender politics of the film somewhat problematic since the film aligns femininity with weakness and vulnerability, I do think that Rosemary’s Baby contains subversive elements. The trailer above, for instance, makes motherhood and marriage look creepy, undermining their privileged place within our heteronormative culture. In many ways, its Rosemary’s strict adherence to traditional gender roles that leads to the film’s terrifying conclusion; while I wish it didn’t all fall on Rosemary’s shoulders, I do think an argument can be made that the film challenges dominant beliefs about marriage and motherhood.
Of all films directed by Polanski, this trio of films, sometimes called “The Apartment Trilogy,” most obviously explore themes of paranoia. Of course, many other films directed by Polanski also highlight similar ideas: Chinatown, for instance, explores city politics, conspiracy, and family trauma. The recently-released The Ghost Writer harks back to Chinatown with its focus on corruption in English politics:
While clearly not on par with Polanski’s best projects, I would recommend The Ghost Writer if you’re looking for something a little bit smarter than the average mainstream film (although we were all a little puzzled by the dubbing over of swear words–clearly, someone wanted a PG-13 rating. Such obvious studio edits should remind us about the limits of authorial control). A bit stuffy overall, but enjoyable genre entertainment.
Some critics have suggested that Polanski’s biography may influence these themes, with the trauma of the holocaust he experienced as a child, the horrific death of his wife Sharon Tate, and the judicial response to Polanski’s rape of a thirteen year-old girl (see the excellent documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) all feeding into a sense of persecution. In one of the television interviews featured in the film, Polanski says he felt like “a mouse with which an abominable cat was making sport”–you get much the same feeling as a viewer watching these films.